Should I Fill Out This Lead Form?

Web-to-Lead Forms and Data Mining

Most people spend quite a bit of time online looking for information and that can lead to giving out information for more details on a product or service using an online form. If you’ve been scammed by email, a victim of identity theft or part of a larger data breach as a result of shopping at your favorite store websites, then you know how distressing it can be to find out the extent of the damage to your privacy and finances. Everyone needs to take precautions when visiting sites online. How do we know a website is safe to navigate and that our personal data we choose to share online is secure?

Web-to-Lead Forms and Marketing Contact Forms

Lead and contact forms are used in sales to find people who may be interested in specific products or services. Sometimes they ask you to fill out a form for more information and sometimes they ask if you want to subscribe to an online newsletter or receive a free download of information. They are looking for a name, address, phone, or email address to direct marketing materials or a sales call. Once you fill it out, you’ve given them permission to contact you and you will certainly hear from them repeatedly until you either purchase or unsubscribe.

Some companies use these forms to get personal information to sell to other businesses for the same advertising purposes, but in the process expose your information to people and companies you have not been able to identify as trustworthy and don’t offer any current value to you. In addition, they can include businesses that send fraudulent emails and websites to take your personal information and then access your bank accounts and identity.

Warning Signs

A reliable company would only use your information for more effective marketing, increased brand loyalty and more sales. Companies like Amazon and Zappos use information from their own web-to-lead contact forms (registration forms, product downloads, sales event sign-ups) as part of in-house data mining approaches for unbelievably accurate marketing focused on delivering automatic and extremely customized product recommendations based on prior purchases.

However, data brokers scrape public information from established sites and sell it to other less reputable sites looking for an easier way to get consumer leads. The data includes names, home addresses and purchase histories, and credit card activity. There is an entire industry full of companies who make money buying and selling personal information. Unfortunately, data mining company activity including the use of web-to-lead contact forms is largely self-regulating and you need to be careful who you give your information to online.

Inspecting the URL

The unique website or email address can be carefully inspected before proceeding to determine your level of trust.

  • A personal site will not have a publisher or domain to vouch for the information on it. Unless you know where it came from, don’t open it.
  • Check to see the domain name corresponds to the extension on the end as well as the content being provided. (.gov, .org, .edu and country codes .us, .uk .de are not monitored as well as others). Proceed with caution.
  • Be leery of a page or email with very little information.
  • The published information should make sense with the publishing entity (newyorktimes.com for a news article, nih.com for health-related information).
  • A hacker will send emails with what appears to be a link to a well-known company or brand and urge you to update information. Go to the company site directly to be safe.
  • Use Alexa.com, a browser extension from Amazon, to get site details and traffic information by pasting the URL into your browser and finding the results.
  • Google the site address, the author’s name, the Google ranking and site traffic.

More than one form of contact information should always be visible on a credible website or email correspondence and the process for communication should be easy.

Signs of Trust

Companies that design their websites with signs of credibility have an advantage over their competition. They would not jeopardize their reputation with a questionable looking page because a great company wants to stay in business for a very long time. Based on this information, you should be looking for total transparency and evaluating a website in much the same way you evaluate friendships. Loyalty and honesty take a little time to build and they require equal participation.

Beware of a site if an address and phone number are not visible at all times and on each page, if a contact link is not displayed on the navigation menu, or content has no relevance to the line of business. The site should be an attractive design and easy to understand; both simple and helpful. Beware of incorrect spelling or broken grammar. You can’t trust a company that would find that acceptable on their home page, product pages, or anywhere else.

Reputable websites show as many external websites links to reference their organization as possible. Those links are to other reputable companies or affiliates who trust the website enough to put their name on it. Businesses work hard on their public image. You should find positive articles about the company’s efforts in business and newsletters along with links to charitable causes or community projects. Today’s companies lead the way in social media presence and interaction. Check for links to the most popular social media sites and investigate.

Look for staff biographies and photographs. This is an attempt to be personal and approachable. An anonymous website is doing the opposite and hoping you won’t notice. Likewise, there should be photographs of the store, facility, office, or other locations where the business operates. There is physical proof they exist and have pride in their business. If the business operates solely online, there should be an indication of that as well in their About page.

Return and refund policies will be easy to find. Trust involves customer satisfaction and service. Email contact forms and any other attempt to collect data from you should have a privacy policy detailing how they will use the information. Make sure they maintain complete privacy or give you the choice of what information is shareable.

A reliable website would never make unbelievable claims about the business, products or services. All statements and claims should have cited expert sources. There should be detailed product information, including pricing or how to receive an estimate. Within their content, there may be links or forms for further details and they should always be operational.

As you are browsing, be aware of the number of ads and slow loading pages that would indicate they are not concerned enough about their customer’s experience with the site. All flash with no substance is a definite scam.

Taking Preventative Steps

Check your browser settings and opt out of third-party cookies. This is similar to putting your phone number on the federal Do Not Call List. It’s another step toward reducing your exposure to dangerous sites, unwanted advertising, and letting you control your privacy.

There are companies out there to help individuals delete data-mined records. SafeShepherd explains how it works. The site will find your information, give you privacy alerts, and request removal of basic records.

Be a defensive consumer; protect yourself by taking the time to investigate before sharing your information. It may seem like a hassle, but stolen information, identity theft, and financial pitfalls will be far worse.

Legislation that Can Protect You

The FTC has a provision still in consideration that requires companies to wait to ask for information until the consumer is ready to make a decision. They want companies to be more transparent by creating easier to understand privacy policies and clearly explain to consumers what the company’s data sharing practices include. Many companies are already doing this to stay ahead of consumer trust.

A credible e-commerce website accepting credit card payments must have details of their security processes. A company that wants to earn your trust will proudly display a “trusted mark” like an SSL certificate or Trusted Site Certified Privacy icon from Google.

The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 will not allow certain online sources to collect email addresses from blogs and internet chat rooms unless they have the permission of site users and owners. If you find an inquiry form here, it should be someone you already know.

A company must create a customer information privacy policy for customers to access if they are collecting data, but it is not currently enforceable by law. A company must disclose whether they intend to sell data to third parties in their privacy policy. Privacy statements should explain what information is public and what is kept private and if you are allowed to choose. Consumers should be able to opt out of receiving marketing material as well. A reputable company will play by these rules.

Data mining is epidemic on health care websites. Businesses in the health care realm must gather patient records in accordance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) laws. Interacting with children online requires compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Carefully examine these sites for references to these laws. A reputable health-related site would not risk incurring heavy government fines.

A blatant disregard for current or pending legislation implies poor business ethics. Remember, data mining sites, by law, don’t have to comply with removal requests so the best thing to do is protect yourself in the first place by knowing the warning signs and looking for indications of trust.

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