Clean out the cookies: Protecting your information after holiday shopping


It’s a brand new year and time for a fresh start. Maybe you’ve found yourself on a mailing or newsletter list you’re not interested in, or maybe you’re concerned about all the private information you provided retailers during your holiday online spending spree. Clean up your act by following these 11 steps.

How to stop catalogs and other mail

You may wonder why you’re getting so many catalogs if you haven’t bought anything from a catalog in years. The answer is data brokering. Somewhere along the line, you’ve likely shared your information with a company that doesn’t promise to keep your information private. That information is sold and voila, you’re on another marketer’s list. You may also be getting unwanted mail because you gave identifying information at a retail cash register at some point.

1. Call companies one by one: You can call the individual companies that mail you catalogs and other direct mail pieces and ask to be removed from their mailing list, but there’s an easier way. More on that below.

You can also physically return catalogs or junk mail to the sender, and those companies are then supposed to remove your name from their lists. In practice, this sometimes takes awhile to take effect.

2. Manage your mail through these websites: Sign up for a free account at Catalog Choice from TrustedID, or sign in with your Facebook account and use their database to unsubscribe from mailings.

They work with 8,000 companies, including data brokers, to stop unwanted mail, including catalogs, donation requests, magazine subscription offers and credit card offers. A site run by the Direct Marketing Association, DMAchoice, works the same way. They work with 3,600 organizations that send out direct mail pieces.Both sites allow you to look up the companies sending you mail and submit opt-out requests.

3. Manage your mail through this app: PaperKarma is a bit different. It’s an app that uses your smartphone’s camera to get the job done. Take a photo of the mail you don’t want to receive anymore and PaperKarma will contact the company and have your name removed from the list. The app is available for iOS, Android and Windows.

How to stop marketing emails and newsletters

If you shopped online this holiday season, you’ve probably ended up on a few stores’ e-newsletter lists.

4. Unsubscribe one by one: By law, marketing emails must allow you to unsubscribe from them, or they are considered spam. You can unsubscribe one by one using the links provided in the emails, usually at the bottom of the message. They will say “unsubscribe” or “manage your preferences” or something similar.

You can also unsubscribe individually using your email program. For example, in Gmail you’ll find an unsubscribe link to the right of the email address at the top of many messages. Outlook also lets you unsubscribe.

5. Manage your email through this website: The site Unroll.Me lets you see all your subscriptions at once and choose the emails you want to stop receiving. You can then decide to combine all remaining newsletters and updates into one “roll-up” email to reduce the number of messages you receive.

6. Mark spam as spam and move on: Note that if you are receiving genuine spam, you won’t find an option to unsubscribe. Use your email program to label it as spam and simply delete it. Do not reply and ask to be removed from their list.

How to keep your private information private

7. Consider new payment methods: New payment methods like Apple Pay can process payment while withholding your private information from the merchant.

8. Don’t give out your ZIP code in stores: Some stores ask for your ZIP code at checkout, and they’re not doing it to process your credit card transaction. They’re doing it for marketing purposes. Even though it seems innocuous, providing those five digits can give the retailer the information it needs to find your mailing address. So next time someone asks for your ZIP code, decline unless you want to take the chance that they may start to send you mail.

9. Delete stored credit card numbers: It’s certainly convenient to shop online with stored credit card numbers, but there are risks. Even if your credit card number is not stolen wholesale, parts of your information can be pieced together to take over your identity and hijack your accounts, as journalist Mat Honan experienced and reported on in Wired in 2012. Using four digits of a credit card saved on Amazon to get into Honan’s Apple account, a hacker was able to take over his computer and cause havoc.

Take extra precautions when you can, like opting in to two-step verification processes when available. For instance, some banks will text a code to your phone that you then enter online before logging in to your account.

10. Clear your computer’s cookies and disable them: Many websites use cookies to track when you visit and what you view. This information can be used to target advertising to you. That’s why you can look at a pair of shoes on Monday and see the same pair appear in an ad on a different site on Tuesday.

Clearing cookies regularly can help keep your browser speedy. The process is different depending on which browser you use. After clearing cookies, you may want to disable them altogether, a process that again depends on which browser you use.

11. Change your passwords: It may not be reasonable to change every single password you have, but you should definitely change passwords for your most important accounts, like bank accounts and credit cards, regularly. Each password should be different, even if only by a few keystrokes. Find how to make and manage great passwords.