How much do they have the right to know about you?
Because I travel so much, I use a post office box. It's a simple security trick that I recommend to everyone who travels. First, it'll hold your mail for you. But just as important, if you use a P.O. box for your primary address then it's much harder for crooks you meet on the road to realize you're not home and burgle you.
It's a tactic that worked very well for me...until this month.
Twice in the space of five days, I was turned away at a rental car desk because of it. My state-issued driver's license is printed with my P.O. box, and the credit card with which I guaranteed the reservation is linked to it. All the paperwork was in order and my credit card cleared. But I was refused service first at Avis and then at Payless only because I refused to also divulge my street address.
No degree of petitioning to managers would help. Asking to see the written policy only resulted in patronizing lectures about how it was for their protection should I run off with a $26,000 car.
"But that's what the credit card is for," I told the Avis branch manager who refused me using that excuse. I pointed out that other Avis locations had been fine with it, including an airport location in another state to which I had returned a car that very morning. He said all of those locations were wrong to let me have a car. I disagreed: "I shouldn't have to give up my home address to people I don't know when my ID and methods of payment endorse another address."
I don't have to spell out for you how potentially dangerous it is to give out your home address willy-nilly. A few nightmare scenarios: When you write your home address in the hotel guest log, it's obvious where people should go to take your stuff. It can also easily enable identify theft: The more facts strangers have about you, the more they can use your info to redirect your mail with a Change of Address form and begin siphoning your details.
By phone, an Avis rep told me that his branch was wrong. No, he said, it is not Avis policy that I should be forced to give up my street address.
Payless, however, told me it was its own policy, but for a wholly different reason than Avis (which has actually owned Payless for 11 months): "If a customer inadvertently leaves a valuable personal item in the vehicle, having an address on file makes it faster and easier to return the item to the customer," a Payless spokesperson explained to me.
Hertz, which has never turned me down for using a P.O. Box, told me, "While we ask for a valid driver's license and credit card at time of rental, we do also require a street address for renting a car."
So here's the scorecard: Avis turned me down when it shouldn't have, Hertz should turn me down but hasn't, and Payless turns me down when its parent company says not to.
As you can see, it's a mess. And it's going to stay a mess.
"I'm unaware of any law that specifically addresses consumers refusing to provide certain personal information in a transaction," says consumer columnist Mitch Lipka. "Privacy laws can vary by state, California tends to have some more protective ones, but I don't know of any law that would be on your side on this."
Paul Stephens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse agrees. He told me there's no protection for consumers when it comes to divulging not just your address, but anything at all. Some businesses even demand your Social Security Number, and no law forbids it.
Lipka added: "A company can pretty much set any policy it wants for, say, returns, as long as they disclose the policy."
Payless didn't. Its FAQ (here) says you only need to supply proof of age, a driver's license, a credit card in your name, and a good driving record.
I informed a Payless rep that I had been refused service despite having met its posted standards. "We were not aware that this requirement was not disclosed on the website and we are addressing it," was the official response. (That was on June 20; the website has not been changed yet.)
No matter how messed up their policies are, companies are allowed to ask. There is no law protecting you. Bear in mind, though, there is no law protecting their demand, either. If you refuse them, it isn't against the law, but in return it can refuse you, which also isn't against the law.
"The vast majority of consumers simply provide the information that's requested," says Lipka.
Which is how businesses get away with harvesting your personal information. If you think your privacy is being violated by any travel company, do what I did: Book another vendor on the spot using a last-minute deal smartphone app. Ten minutes later in both cases, I was driving a car from a company that was pleased to take my money, and the price was about the same.
There is one more thing you could do: You could lie. As long as you're not lying about anything the law covers, such as your credit card billing address or signed pledges of honesty, there's nothing to stop you. You could give them a fake address or you might even give the street address of the post office containing your post office box.
Now, I cannot suggest you set out to deceive a vendor. Of course that would be wrong. But you could. And if these companies are happy being so careless about our privacy, wouldn't it stand to reason we might accidentally also be careless about the facts it has no legal right to collect?
Photo credit: Atomic Taco/Flckr