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Can Philatelists Still Keep A Low Profile in the Cyber Age?
By John L. Leszak

Anonymity has long been a cherished virtue of philately. Many collectors prefer to cloak themselves in privacy and enjoy their collections in the safe comforts of their homes. Yet, in this ever advancing world of cyber technology, is it possible for collectors to remain veiled in anonymity?

After 35 years of full-time stamp dealing, I am mystified by the enormity of information that's on the Internet. My business emerged in a day when a customer gave his or her phone number to a dealer only with the assurance that the number be kept private. I took these guarded number so seriously that I didn't even include them in my regular Rolodex. Instead, I kept them in a small notebook, and even then, I only wrote the first name of the collector, or what that person collected, along with the closely guarded phone number.

Many years ago, I spoke to a collector who was gravely concerned about the world finding out where he lived. Over the years, we established a mutual confidence and one day he told me an interesting story. He was shopping in a local supermarket in his neighborhood, when he encountered a man who frequented stamp shows. They chatted politely, but the experience was unnerving to my customer. He related that afterwards, he started shopping in a different supermarket across town, because he didn't want the other collector to know his approximate neighborhood. Well, all that's changed as we now live in the high-tech cyber age of the 21st century!

At a recent show, I had an interesting detailed conversation with an Internet dealer who's in his late 20s. He told me that he conducts a deep background search on all his customers to determine if they are worthy and reliable. Personally, I find the process of digging into the backgrounds of customers to be a vile violation of personal privacy! I grew up in an age in which people cherished the sanctity of their personal domains where they could collect stamps and covers. If they wanted to sit in their underwear at a kitchen table full of messy dishes, sort stamps while listening to some off the wall radio talk show, it didn't matter because no one would ever discover their home address. In the 1970s I knew an approval dealer who set up stamp approval books while he sat on the throne in his bathroom. He openly confessed to this practice, and his advice to successful stamp dealing was: "If you want to make money in this business, use every possible hour to work up new inventory!"

For decades, I have developed scores of reliable customers, but I am clueless about their professions, their families or their religious beliefs. I see them at shows, but I have no notion of the cars they drive, the books they read, their sexual persuasion or the homes in which they live. Frankly, nothing beyond philately is any of my business. Yes, I wish they would be more detailed about their collecting needs, so that I could be more thorough in unearthing new material for them. But I don't want to clutter my brain or invade their privacy by delving deeply into their personal lives.

The Internet dealer with whom I had a lengthy conversation has a different outlook. He believes that if people have personal information that has made its way to the Internet, it's fair game to probe into their personal lives. He says he's checking into their backgrounds; I think it's a form of voyeurism.

When this overly-inquisitive Internet dealer receives an order, the first thing he does is go to Google.com and search the customer's address. In many cases he can actually pull up a photo of the person's home. He claims that he does this to check the affluence of his customers to see if they meet his criteria for financial stability. I told him that he doesn't know if the person owns or rents the home that appears in his Google search. Nor does he know if there's an outstanding mortgage on the home. He corrected me and said that he uses a special search engine that helps determine when the house was purchased, and the purchase price. Essentially, any piece of information filed with municipalities, and in some cases, public utilities, can be unearthed on the Internet.

But this dealer's search doesn't end there. He goes to a couple of sites called pipl.com, and zabasearch.com and searches the names of his customers. He merely enters the name of a customer into these websites, and a wealth of information is revealed.  Both of these websites  search for and collate personal information regarding U.S. residents, including names, current and past addresses, phone numbers, birth dates and names of possible relatives. Such information permits the user to query other search engines to retrieve other data such as satellite and street level photos of addresses and criminal background checks. If the customer has signed up for websites, chances are that information will appear.

In one instance, because the customer had voluntarily signed up to show what books she had purchased from Amazon.com, the Internet dealer told me he could determine that she was an avid tennis player because she had purchased several tennis technique books on Amazon. I replied that perhaps she had purchased them as gifts, and that the entire notion of compiling information, both speculative and real, on one's customers goes beyond the scope of stamp dealing.

This young Internet dealer says that when he discovers the birthdays of his customers on the Internet, he enters that information into his computer so that a birthday card e-mail is generated at the appropriate time. I said that if the customers wanted a birthday e-mail, they would've shared their birthdays with him. The Internet dealer replied, "But when they make their birthdays public on the Internet, they are sharing that information with me."

Furthermore, this dealer makes a regular practice searching the personal websites of his customers, like Facebook.com. In many instances, he's able to check out the profiles of the customer's close friends, because a list of friends might also included on Facebook.

The Internet dealer told me that by gathering up information on the professions, habits and lifestyles of his customers, he's better enabled to meet their philatelic needs. I told him that if his customers knew that he was dabbling into their lives on the Internet, that some of them might want to meet his face with their fists. [How would you react if you found out a dealer was collecting such information about you? Tell us in The VSC message board].

Maybe I'm still living in the age of index cards and carbon paper, but when I related all this to a dealer friend who's been around for almost 25 years,  he told me an interesting story. He had a problem customer who wrote him a bad check, and then disappeared. After an exhaustive Internet search, he was able to locate the person and pursue the recovery of the funds from the bad check. But this same dealer also told me that his mild curiosity is often stimulated when he receives inquiries from new customers. He too likes to Google their names and addresses.

Many years ago, the APS published a membership directory that included the name and address of each member. While this was a wonderful resource tool for collectors to network amongst themselves, it could also be a useful hit list for thieves. Thus, the directory was discontinued. Many philatelic societies once listed the full addresses of new applicants. Some dealers loved this arrangement, because they found it to be a ready source of "fresh" philatelic names to which they could send out price lists and auction catalogs. These days, only the names and towns are published. Yet, that's not a deterrent, because entering the name, town or zip code into a search engine on the Internet can often yield a street address.

 I think that it would be a great service to collectors if the APS set up a postal box system for all its members. People could write to the customers at the APS, using APS numbers as the designated post office boxes. The APS could then forward the mail for a small fee and on a need-be basis.

It's no wonder that so many people, when asked to register at the doors of stamp shows, refuse to give their real names. I've observed at least three collectors turn around and walk away from a registration booth at at stamp show when asked to verify their address. Their privacy meant more to them than making the rounds at a stamp show!

I spoke with one show promoter who was delighted that he collected 230 names and addresses from visitors to one of his shows. He used this registration information to send out notices for his future shows. To his astonishment, more than 70% of the promo cards came back to as undeliverable because the show registrants had used fictitious names or addresses.

Last summer, I offered to carry several large cartons that a customer had purchased out to the parking lot. The customer refused my offer, and then added with grave suspicion, "then you'd be able to copy down my license plate!"

Years ago, customers kept such a low profile that dealers would have to refer to customers by the items that they collected. There was the "the lady with the grey eyes  who collects plate blocks" and the "fat guy with a stringy mustache who collects revenues."

Younger generations think nothing of sharing their Social Security number on assorted forms when they visit their doctor, or sign up for an account in a video store. I grew up in a generation that was taught that Social Security numbers were not to be used for identification, and were only to be given out to employers. Twenty years ago, my wife Paula would cringe when I would debate medical clerks who would insist that I include my Social Security number on a form. I would tell them that since I was not applying for a job, my Social Security number was none of their concern. I've mellowed out now, and simply leave the space blank. If someone insists that I fill in my Social Security number, I give them the first nine digits of my phone number. The clerks are simply conditioned to see that the numbers are filled in, and no one has ever said, "Aha! That's not your Social Security number!"

One of my close philatelic friends said that he was appalled several years ago to receive a phone call from a total stranger who inquired about his stamp collection. He called the police, but they were too busy with other matters and referred him to the telephone company. He changed his phone number as a precaution, but the call troubled him so deeply that he moved to a new home about a year later, after setting up a post office box that lists his old home address as the address on record at the post office. Now my friend uses a cell phone, and frequently changes the number. He only uses computers at his local library, and he intentionally misspelled his name when applying for a library card. When he bids in stamp auctions or buys in the mail, he again intentionally misspells his name, and pays for everything with a postal money order.

One clever philatelist recently told me that he has gone to great lengths to set up a totally bogus identity in regards to his philatelic purchases. He has all his philatelic mail addressed to his church, and it's sent to an assumed name. The pastor of the church is happy to comply with this philatelist's request. Yet, I imagine that a sudden surge of assumed names going to the that church might suddenly trigger a mechanism in the post office that several hundred different people were living at the same address!

Sometimes, the best way to buy and keep a low profile is to find a trusted third party agent who will bid and buy for a small fee or commission. For many philatelists, using an agent gives them peace of mind and a good night of sleep!

And... how would you react if you found out a dealer was collecting personal information about you? Tell us that, too, in another discussion in The VSC message board.

© John L. Leszak. All rights reserved. Published on The Virtual Stamp Club by permission.

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