Matters of customer privacy pushed to forefront as digital transactions take over financial institutions

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 8, 2001

Some sharing of customers’ personal information is essential to providing the many financial services banks offer today, Miss-Lou bankers agree.

Providing credit, preventing fraud, identifying customer needs – and doing it all in a fast, efficient manner – requires the passing of personal data among institutions. However, for most small community banks, the privacy of customers still remains inviolate.

&uot;It’s in our own self interest to protect customers’ privacy,&uot; said Page Ogden, president and CEO of Britton & Koontz First National Bank in Natchez.

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&uot;We have to be as confidential as we can be. As a human being you have to do that. And I believe most businesses, like banks, are very proprietary about the information they have on their customers,&uot; he said.

B&K does not sell names or information about the bank’s customers, he said.

Nor does United Mississippi Bank, said Carolyn Heard, who is working in an internal auditing role at the bank. &uot;We’ve always had a strong commitment to protect customers,&uot; she said.

Questions of privacy – particularly exchange of personal data – have arisen recently as privacy policy notices by banks, insurance companies, accounting firms and other businesses that handle customers’ money begin to circulate among customers.

Those privacy policy notices, usually arriving with monthly statements, are required by a November 1999 law, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, also known as the Financial Modernization Act.

In May 2000, banks received final directives about notifying customers annually to disclose their privacy policies. The first notices were required to be sent by July 1, 2001.

Cliffie Anderson, compliance officer at B&K, said some customers have been confused by television programs and discussions of &uot;opt-in&uot; or &uot;opt-out&uot; of their banks’ information sharing.

&uot;I tell them we don’t have anything to opt-out of,&uot; Anderson said. B&K, like most community banks, shares information only under certain guidelines necessary for doing the customers’ business.

Those business transactions are what this line in most privacy policy statements means: &uot;We do not disclose any nonpublic personal information about our customers or former customers to non-affiliated third parties except as permitted by law.&uot;

Anderson said banks are allowed and ordered to share information in certain circumstances – under a court order, for example; and in any case in which the customer has requested a service. The company that prints the customer’s checks must have the personal data to put on the checks. The same is true for the company that produces ATM cards.

Ogden said the bank expects total confidentiality between B&K and any other business it employs for services such as those.

&uot;Our computer system is supported by another group. Theoretically, they could get personal data from our customers,&uot; he said. &uot;But we wouldn’t do business with them if they were doing that.&uot;

Still, the importance of exchanging information in the course of serving the customer cannot be overemphasized, he said.

&uot;If we were not allowed to exchange information, it would make it much more difficult for people to get credit,&uot; Ogden said.

The same would be true for opening savings accounts, cashing checks, taking out mortgages – a myriad of financial services.

&uot;Take a mortgage loan as an example,&uot; Ogden said. &uot;In the old days before the FDIC, you had to wait in line for a loan.&uot; In today’s fast-paced financial world, loans can be approved much more quickly.

&uot;Information on your application goes to another financial institution but only for the purpose of substantiating that application,&uot; he said.

It would be hard to write a law that would eliminate all abuse in the area of information sharing, Ogden said. &uot;But one of the things I specify is that customer information is the property of B&K and can’t be used without our permission. We wouldn’t want our data bases outside the system.&uot;

Real privacy concerns surface constantly. &uot;Do a search on Yahoo and see the names and addresses you find. You wonder how they get those names and numbers,&uot; Ogden said.

&uot;There are places in Asia and third-world countries copying names and numbers out of phone books. It’s not that the phone companies are selling the information. The information is just out there.&uot;