Why show your ID to return a purchase?

What do you need to return a product to a store? Typically, the original receipt with the unused good was enough to warrant the exchange. In the odd occasion, if the purchase was made with a credit card, the store clerk might ask for ID to verify the name by simply looking at an ID card.

As of February 2011, however, Best Buy in Canada changed their return and exchange policy to make providing government-issued ID mandatory. Even if you have the receipt and the original purchase was paid in cash, this new policy requires that your ID (such as driver’s licence) is to be electronically swiped for any product to be returned.

By swiping a personal ID, Best Buy is able to track the return and exchange rate of each individual, allowing them to crack down on the “1% of abused returners.” Yet 1% of returners is a pretty small number — what else is so valuable to swipe ID cards for the other 99% of returners?

Turns out Best Buy is not alone in this practice of swiping IDs to return products. Especially in the US, there are a growing number of retail stores that are contracting a third-party data collector, called The Retail Equation (TRE). By swiping ID cards to return products, TRE is able to use the unique identifying number (such as the driver’s licence number) to collect personal information (such as gender, age and address) and continuously keep track of a person’s returns and exchanges across a variety of retailers. Combined with any financial trails the stores have (e.g. credit card information), an individual’s shopping behaviour can be tracked extensively, including where they shop, what they buy and what they return. This behavioural tracking presents very valuable information for a store’s promotional targeting, and is potentially more profitable than stopping return abusers.

Part of the Prop-ID project is to try to have stores be open about what information they are collecting and what they are doing with it. While return abuse might be a legitimate concern for retailers, the current practice of recording a person’s ID card and using that information for a variety of secondary purposes without the consent of the individual is a violation of the openness and transparency principles in Canada’s privacy laws.