UPS program delivers unnerving surprise

David Lazarus
Los Angeles Times
October 28, 2013

It's pretty much expected that everyone knows everything about you in today's privacy-free world. But it's still freaky to see how easily a business can crawl into your life.

Elaine Miller, 61, recently was expecting a package from UPS. She called the company and asked whether she could find out a rough time frame for the delivery in case her signature was required.

A rep said the package would arrive at Miller's Mar Vista home at some point between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. — not the most customer-friendly arrangement.

However, the UPS rep said that if Miller joined the company's My Choice program, she'd be able to set a narrower delivery window.

So Miller went online and began the multi-step process to register a My Choice account. She was asked for her name, address, phone number and email address.

And then she came to a page asking her to verify her identity. Miller was instructed to select the city in which she'd never lived from a list of four cities.

She was asked to select the street on which she'd once lived from a list of four streets. Both questions revealed that UPS knew precisely where Miller had resided in the past.

Then came a question asking Miller to select the month in which her daughter was born. And it included her daughter's name.

"This completely creeped me out," Miller told me. "They obviously had access to both my daughter's name and her birth date. It was really unnerving."

Actually, there are a number of troubling things here.

First, UPS says it can give you a desired delivery window only if you hand over personal information to register an account with the company. Talk about demanding a pound of flesh for what should be a basic service.

Worse, even though the My Choice website says you can "get home delivery on your schedule," you aren't given the option of setting a desired delivery window unless you pay $40 a year for a premium membership.

And this isn't revealed until you're deep into the registration process — after you've parted with your personal info.

Then there's the seemingly egregious privacy violation that occurs as UPS rummages through your past to cook up its security questions.

"I'm not a paranoid person," Miller said. "But it's very disconcerting that they have this information at their fingertips."

I went to the My Choice site and tried it out for myself. I had an even more disconcerting experience than Miller did.

In my case, UPS wanted me to name the city I'd formerly lived in. San Francisco, where I resided before moving back to Los Angeles, was on the list.

The next one was a trick question. It asked me to name the street I'd once lived on or "none of the above." The answer was "none of the above."

The third question asked me to name the city I'd never lived in. The list included three Connecticut cities I'd never visited and the one where I was born. Since you could pick only one answer, I picked "all of the above."

The UPS site then said it would need more information to verify my identity and asked for my birth date. Maybe this was just a glitch. Or maybe it was a sneaky way to get me to cough up this most important of data points.

I provided my birth date and was presented with a trio of much more specific questions. The first asked the month that my wife was born, and it included both the correct month and her full name.

The second one again identified San Francisco as my former home. The third question included the street in San Francisco that I lived on.

Like Miller, I was completely creeped out.

Natalie Godwin, a UPS spokeswoman, said she's heard this before. Some people, she said, are so concerned about identity theft that they cancel the registration process as soon as the security questions come up.

So why do this?

"We need to make sure that we're sending packages to the right people," Godwin said. "We're doing this to prevent fraud."

She said UPS contracts with another company, which she declined to name, to rapidly scour public databases in search of historical tidbits that can be used to make sure that you're you. These databases include tax records and utility bills, Godwin said.

I suppose this is preferable to having to give up your Social Security number. But it's a shock to see how easily the business world can come up with people's personal information.

I'm considerably less understanding of UPS' misleading approach to its My Choice service.

Any company that says you can "get home delivery on your schedule" and highlights the word "free" is clearly indicating that you can set your own delivery time at no additional charge.

In reality, Godwin acknowledged, the free-of-charge My Choice service will only notify you when the UPS truck is expected in your neighborhood. You aren't given the ability to set a two-hour delivery window unless you pay for the premium service.

On top of that, Godwin said, if UPS manages to arrive within that delivery window, which you've already paid extra to establish, you'll have to pay an additional $5.

None of this is disclosed upfront during the My Choice registration process. You're not even informed that a premium service exists until you start registering.

Godwin declined to comment on how My Choice is presented to consumers.

After I registered, I received an email from UPS informing me that a package I was expecting will be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. It said that if I wanted UPS to deliver it, maybe a day earlier, I could pay $3.50.

That's my choice? No thanks.

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