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When “Public Information” Can Get You Into Trouble


When “Public Information” Can Get You Into Trouble

It’s amazing how much of your personal information is easily available on the Internet.  If you are an honest person with nothing to hide, your life is an open book.  You might employ a top down marketing strategy, seeking to build a prospect list where everyone shares one characteristic:  The wherewithal to afford your products.  Beware the pitfalls of public information.

Here’s the most serious example.  Information about political donors is widely available.  Logically, it makes sense.  You want to know who might be influencing an elected official’s decisions.  However, a wall goes up if you try to use this information for commercial purposes.  When writing my book “Captivating the Wealthy Investor” I learned most states have laws governing data usage:  “As an example, the laws governing ‘Use of Lists of Contributors’ contained in the financial reports filed by candidates in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is covered in Volume 25, Purdons Statutes, Section 3249, subjection (d) Pennsylvania Statute Book:

‘It shall be unlawful for any person to use the contents of any statement or report filed under this article for any commercial purpose whatsoever.’

“It’s the law.  They can sue to enforce it.  And they do.”

How do they enforce the law?  One obvious way is by seeding the contributor lists.  They add in several dummy names or misspell names a certain way.  The address might be a post office box.  If they receive any mail solicitations, they know the source of the names was that restricted use list!  They now know who you are and where you found the data.

Here’s another instance where “Not for Commercial Purposes” might come into play:  The people compiling the list might also run a business selling the data in list form. You might come across professional organizations who make this very obvious.  The text might read:  “We can sell you a copy of our list if you want to use it for business purposes.”  In this case, the organization might give people listed the option of opting out.

In some cases, it’s a case of ethics.  Your college alumni directory might appear to be a treasure trove for prospecting because you have a wide range of people, young and old, rich and not so rich who all share a common bond – They attended the same school.  That’s a great conversational door opener.  They likely have text similar to the following: “Use of this directory for any other purpose…or using the addresses or other information contained in this directory for any private, commercial or political mailing is strictly prohibited…”

Is there a way you can work within the rules?  Find the name from more than one source.  Your wealthy doctor prospect might have been a political donor (off the list!) and a graduate from your college (ditto!) yet they may be registered in a public access database for professional licensing in your state.  You’ve checked that site and confirmed it doesn’t have usage restrictions.  They might also get their picture in the paper as a major charity donor.

The key is to follow some very basic rules:

  1. Read and respect the legal and privacy notices on sites;
  2. Only use information for the purpose originally intended by the site.
  3. Find your information from more than one source.
  4. Check with your compliance or branch manager before embarking on an Internet prospect research project.
  5. Respect all information as personal and confidential.

Also, if you are intending on calling, go through your firm’s “Do Not Call” list scrubbing procedure.  Be aware different states might have different policies too.

There’s lots of great data out there.  Plenty is free, but you want to follow the rules so you don’t get into trouble.

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