Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Who Will Guard the PrivacyGuards Themselves?

I’m interrupting my regularly scheduled blog vacation once more to bring you this breaking annoyance report.

I’ve blogged before about having become a victim of identity theft. To keep tabs on future incidents, I signed up for a service called PrivacyGuard. PG provides me with a monthly Credit Alert that allegedly alerts me to any activity in my credit reports, such as inquiries from potential creditors. But now I think this fraud-protection service is perpetrating a fraud, or at least a deception, of its own.

Yesterday, I received news of another identity-theft incident: someone opened a Verizon Wireless account in my name. They had made a credit inquiry with Experian (one of the three major credit reporting agencies), but PG never alerted me to it. So I called PG to find out why, and they told me that the Credit Alert service only checks with one credit reporting agency, TransUnion. If a potential creditor makes its inquiry with one of the other two, Experian or Equifax, I won’t hear anything about it.

Now, at a minimum, this little fact makes PG approximately 2/3 less useful than I had thought. PG bills itself as a way to gain “peace of mind” about the safety of one’s identity, but in fact it gives me 1/3 peace of mind at best. It turns out I can visit PG online to check for inquiries made with one other credit agency (Equifax, I think). Of course, this involves greater inconvenience than receiving automatic notification, and it still only gives me 2/3 of the peace of mind I expected.

But maybe I just failed to read the fine print when I subscribed. So I dug out my PG membership pack, and I found a “Plain Language” document that describes PG’s services with the following clever language:
You can get unlimited copies of your personal credit report information combined from the 3 major credit reporting agencies. [Note that this sentence specifically draws attention to the existence of three agencies. -GW] Plus, you can activate valuable Credit Alert monitoring, which automatically notifies you if anyone adds negative information to your credit records with a major credit reporting agency, or if any inquiries are made with that agency.
The latter sentence contains a sly ambiguity. The word ‘a’ in this context would be interpreted, by most English speakers, as meaning ‘any.’ If you say to a waitress, “I want a slice of apple pie,” you probably don’t have a specific slice in mind – any slice will do. Similarly, I don’t read this “Plain Language” document to mean a specific agency, but any agency that might receive negative information or credit inquiries.

But there is another grammatical interpretation of the word ‘a’, which PG exploits. They attribute an agency-specific meaning to ‘a’ – it refers to a particular credit agency, TransUnion. If PG were a diner customer, we might expect him to say to his waitress, “I didn’t mean this slice of pie!”

Linguistic ambiguity? Time to consult an expert. I called my brother Neal, and he informed me that this kind of ambiguity has a name: de dicto/de re. He provided a nice example: The statement “John wants to marry a Norwegian” is open to two interpretations. The first, and more natural, reading is that John has a predilection for Norwegians and would therefore like to marry some as-yet-unspecified Norwegian. The second, somewhat less natural but still grammatical, reading is that John wants to marry a specific woman who happens to be Norwegian.

So what’s going on, in technical terms? The de dicto reading focuses on what the speaker says, which is some generic class (like “major credit reporting agency” or “slice of apple pie” or “Norwegian”). Anything that fits the class satisfies the sentence. The de re reading focuses on a particular thing that happens to be a member of the class (like “TransUnion,” “that slice of pie,” “Helga”).

My conclusion: PG is taking advantage of a de dicto/de re ambiguity to make its subscribers think the service provides more than it does. It’s particularly telling that this ambiguity appears in PG’s “Plain Language” document, the purpose of which is to make things crystal clear to customers.

Addendum: I did consider that the subsequent phrase ‘with that agency’ might save PG from my accusation by indicating a singular agency. But I think not. The ‘that’ refers back to whichever agency instantiated the general class ‘major credit reporting agency’ in the previous clause of the sentence. It is true, however, that a strict de dicto reading would imply that inquiries will only be reported from agencies that also have received negative information. This is an odd reading, and it could lead the alert reader to think PG might have had some other intended meaning for the previous clause. But at this point, the reader is performing major linguistic excavation to discover the correct interpretation of a “Plain Language” document.


Neal said...

You're right: it's especially galling that they're giving you deceptive language not in just any contract, where you expect to find it, but right in their "Plain Language" contract. It's like the Eddie Murphy bit where (as a kid) he's taunting another kid: "I've got ice cream, and you can't have any!" Then: "Hey, seriously, do you want a lick? Yeah? Well you can't have one!"
After you called, I realized the way that PG was leading you to the wrong reading of the ambiguity. It's not that de re readings are less natural; imagine that our family is biased against Norwegians, and that completely by chance, you fall in love with one. It would make perfect sense for me to tell Dad, "Eww! Glen wants to marry a Norwegian!" and there the de re reading would be the most salient. But in this contract, saying "a credit reporting agency" when they know that they mean specifically Equifax (or whichever one it was) violates the Maxim of Quantity by not giving as much relevant information as they are able to. You assume that they'd say Equifax if that's who they meant, and since they didn't, they probably intend a de dicto reading. Hosers.

Anonymous said...

I am actually surprised that there weren't any more complaints about this matter thus forcing PG to change their terms of agreement. For a fraud-protection service, this style of operation sounds pretty deceptive and fraudulent at best. I don't know enough about law, but couldn't there be class action lawsuits on grounds of false advertising?

When I read, "...combined from the 3 major credit reporting agencies," that seems to clearly spell out that reports are from all 3 agencies b/c they use the word "combined." Had they not used that word, I would think the next part, "...with a major credit reporting agency, or if any inquiries are made with that agency," makes more sense. And isn't "that" just referring to "a" which just states "if either this or that happens" rather than serving to mean they're talking about PG? But nevertheless, it just sounds all to ambigous to be fair practices.

And why are you a victim so frequently?


Gil said...

Technically, I think "that" does save them. They wrote "or", not "and" so it's potentially independent of whether negative information was added (i.e. there could be an inquiry without any negative information added). The only way "that" is meaningful is if the previous "a" was referring to a particular agency. If it wasn't referring to a specific agency they would have written "any agency" or "any of these agencies" or some similar variation.

But, I agree with you and Neal that it's not reasonable to make someone work that hard to infer relevant information that they could and should have plainly provided.

Anonymous said...

"why are you a victim so frequently."--if you knew the answer to that you wouldn't have this problem, right?


Tom W. Bell said...

FWIW, Glen, it is an accepted rule of contract interpretation that vague language will be read against the party who drafted the contract.

Anonymous said...

I also subscribed to PG and I haven't heard anything from them since I signed up. I'm a college student and just obtained my first college CC and signed up for PG. The guy on the phone made it sound like a great deal. He made it sound like I didn't have to do anything (except pay for the service). They sent me a large package with all kinds of details and crap. Being a typical college student, I igorned reading any of it. And as normal, I still have no idea if terrible things are happing to my credit report. However, I do take care of my finances and know that I'm not missing any money.

Anonymous said...

my last comment was just to state that it was a stupid question.


Anonymous said...

neal or anybody, what's a