The question is simple enough: “What’s your ZIP code?” But do you really need to give retailers your ZIP code at checkout?
Retailers have been asking this seemingly benign question for years, and most consumers have acquiesced, assuming that it was a required step in the credit card verification process. In many cases, however, the question isn’t being asked to complete a credit card transaction, but rather for “marketing purposes.” In some states it is now illegal for retailers to ask for your Zone Improvement Plan (ZIP) code for marketing purposes.
It is illegal in Massachusetts for retailers to collect personal information for marketing purposes, as found in a March 2013 court ruling. A person’s ZIP code was ruled to be “personal information” in a class action suit against Michaels arts and crafts stores, which collected ZIP codes and matched them with customers’ addresses or phone numbers from commercial databases. The plaintiff claimed that she believed the ZIP was necessary to complete her transaction, but it was instead used to hound her with telemarketing phone calls and unwanted mailings.
According to Time magazine online, sixteen other states have similar laws in place which prohibit the collection of personal identification, including ZIP codes, by retailers.
Visa and MasterCard give merchants the option to ask for identification, so theoretically an unethical retailer could ask for your ID and look at the ZIP listed there, but it is illegal for a clerk to record any information seen on an ID while checking it for these purposes.
It should be noted that if you are using an American Express card, supplying your billing ZIP may be required for verification during a transaction.
Paying with a credit card at a gas station pump also typically requires a ZIP to verify identification with your bank.
What You Can Do
There are a few things you can do if a retailer asks for your ZIP or other personal information:
- Give it to them – In most cases, all that will happen is that you’ll receive a few extra brochures. Some consumers may want to give a retailer their ZIP if it means receiving extra offers from them.
- Decline – This will probably not stop the transaction from occurring, and the information is probably not being asked in order to complete the transaction (unless it’s an American Express Card).
- Give a fake ZIP code – This may be a favorite option for those who want to avoid a hassle or uncomfortable looks from confused cashiers. A popular choice is 90210 or the White House zip of 20500. Others simply give a nearby ZIP.
In most cases, you should not have to give your ZIP code to a retailer to complete a credit card transaction. Politely decline or give a fake ZIP, and be on your way.
It probably goes without saying, but retailers certainly don’t need your email address or phone number, either.
- Never Give Stores Your Zip Code. Here’s Why (Adam Tanner, Forbes: June 9, 2013)
- What your zip code reveals about you (Melanie Hicken, CNN Money: April 18, 2013)
- Consumers sue retailers over ZIP Code queries (Andrea Chang, Los Angeles Times: February 16, 2011)
Updated January 21, 2015
Originally published July 2013