Columbia, SC — PERHAPS you got that email a few days ago from Experian offering you credit monitoring for just 99 cents a month.
“Ever since your identity was compromised in a data breach last year, ProtectMyID® has provided you with a host of powerful tools and resources to keep your identity secure,” the notice read. “We wanted to let you know that you are now eligible to renew your membership for just 99 cents a month. That’s less than $12 a year to extend the proven identity protection that you have come to know and trust.”
I particularly liked the “know and trust” part, but hold that thought for the moment.
Unless you’re a state government groupie, you probably thought you’d be crazy to pass up such a deal. The company’s going rate is $160 a year for credit monitoring, and as a South Carolinian, you know you need it. You’re at heightened risk for credit fraud for the rest of your life, since somebody out there — perhaps there are lots of somebodies by now — has your full name and Social Security number and address and employer and bank account information and anything else on your tax return, courtesy of the S.C. Department of Revenue.
At some point, though, maybe after you reached into the deep recesses of your memory, maybe when The State and other media started reporting on it, you realized it was a scam: The Legislature already appropriated $10 million to provide another year of credit monitoring for anybody who wants it.
So even though the service is deeply discounted, it’s a service you’re already paying for.
Which is something Experian conveniently failed to mention in its emails. Or at its call center when people started inquiring. In at least one case, The State’s Andy Shain reported, an Experian representative lied about that. “It’s not going to be free anymore,” the representative told a caller. “Because we were offering it at such a discount, we were told South Carolina is not going to do it at all.” (The company insisted that the representative had gone rogue.)
In fact, after being awarded a $12 million no-bid contract this year to cover the 1.5 million hacking victims who signed up for monitoring, Experian decided it would be better off marketing its services directly to the victims instead of having to bid for the contract for the next year.
And when you learned this, what was your reaction? Did you see red? Did you launch into a tirade about how this is just further proof that you can’t trust the private sector? That businesses are going to deceive you at every turn? That your personal information isn’t safe with corporations?
Or did you just shrug your shoulders and move on to the sports section? As corporate deceptions go, this one was, after all, pretty tame.
Now imagine it had been the government that tried to pull a fast one on you like that.
Would you so easily shrug that off? Or would this elicit that tirade? Would you consider this one more example of government deception and corruption? One more reason to shrink the government as much as possible, to turn over as many government functions as possible to … the private sector? Like we did with Experian?
I love the free-enterprise system, am fully convinced that our lives would be impoverished if it were not allowed to flourish, that our country wouldn’t be nearly as prosperous as it is, that we wouldn’t have the technological advances we have, and probably wouldn’t even have the political freedoms we have. I love the fact that I get to make all sorts of choices about what products and services to purchase and from whom (although admittedly there are times I’d like to have fewer choices, to keep my brain from exploding).
But the hard, cold economic reality is that businesses do not exist to serve us. They exist to make money. They are not obliged to be honest with us. They are obliged, particularly if they are publicly traded companies, to make money.
There’s nothing inherently evil about that, and the happy fact is that many if not most businesses have determined that being honest is in their corporate interest. But their corporate motive is the reality, and that is the difference between business and government — the difference that we keep forgetting when we romanticize the latter and demonize the former.
We get angrier when government deceives us because we have higher expectations of government. As we should. As we must. When government misleads or deceives us, that is a failure; when businesses mislead or deceive us, that is a failure only if it hurts the business.
When Sen. Vincent Sheheen blamed Gov. Nikki Haley last week for allowing taxpayers to “continue to have their personal data abused,” this time by Experian, the governor’s office counter-attacked the Democratic gubernatorial candidate for thinking “he can tell a private company that it can or cannot reach out to those it is providing services to.”
Which sort of makes my point: Even when we privatize state services — and in this case the state would have been insane to try to provide this service itself — we have limited control over those businesses we pay to do the public’s business. Unless we specifically prohibit it as part of their contract, they’re free to do whatever they want with the information they receive in performing their contracted duties.
And so in this case, as Sen. Kevin Bryant put it, “We have paid them to market to us.”
Nice work. If you can get it.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.