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Williams-Sonoma Must Stop Asking Customers for Zip Code in California

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Williams-Sonoma by Josh Hallett on Flickr

Photo by Josh Hallett on Flickr

The California Supreme Court has ruled that Williams-Sonoma, and accordingly other retailers in the state, cannot ask for a customer’s zip code when handling an in-store credit card transaction.

According to the decision, one’s zip code is considered “personal identification information” under the Song-Beverly Credit Card Act of 1971 — precisely the kind of information that cannot be lawfully obtained by a merchant during a credit card transaction under that law.

The statute defines “personal identification information” as “information concerning the cardholder, other than information set forth on the credit card, and including, but not limited to, the cardholder’s address and telephone number.”

The lower court found that a zip code is not included in this definition, and the appeals court affirmed. The California Supreme Court, however, overturned that decision, focusing heavily on the statute’s intent of prohibiting a retailer from compiling “information unnecessary to the sales transaction that, alone or together with other data such as a cardholder’s name or credit card number, can be used for the retailer’s business purposes.”

The court also rejected Williams-Sonoma’s arguments that the act was unconstitutionally vague and that the legislature didn’t intend for the law to prevent retailers from targeting customers through mail order catalogs.

The court further ruled that the decision can be applied retroactively to customer credit card transactions that have already taken place, which could end up being a very big deal for Williams-Sonoma and other merchants as each violation of the act carries a $1,000 fine.

The court faced this question because of a class action lawsuit that has been filed against Williams-Sonoma based on the zip code request practice. Plaintiff Jessica Pineda cited violations of both the above-mentioned act as well as her privacy. The complaint alleges that Williams-Sonoma uses the zip codes to identify targets for further marketing such as the sending of catalogs or even to sell the address information to other retailers.

Reuters notes that states such as Delaware, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Nevada, and Rhode Island have laws similar to the Song-Beverly Credit Card Act, so it remains to be seen whether the zip code requests will eventually be prohibited in those states as well.

What do you think about the request for your zip code when making a credit card transaction?

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May 4th, 2011 at 11:27 am