BarcodeShopping apps…..how cool are they?     They’ve made comparison shopping easy and profitable.   The ones that use bar codes to read the products are super fun to use.   They are the best thing since……………..wait a second.   What are they getting out of the deal?  That’s the rub!   They are getting data.  A lot of data.   A lot of your potentially private data.   Their use of your personal data is, basically, unlimited and this is dangerous for you and everyone to whom you are connected.   While there are no documented abuse stories….yet….the potential for scam-like, invasive abuses is very real.   So much so that the Federal Trade Commission recently took a look at mobile shopping apps and what it found wasn’t pretty.  The federal consumer protection agency’s August 2014 report:  “What’s the Deal” may not be a page-turner, but it is an eye-opener.   The bottom line:  consumer have no idea what happens with their personal data or credit card information after they use a shopping app.

The agency downloaded and reviewed over 120 apps sold in Google and Apple app stores. (who knew that there were so many!)   It turns out that many large retailers each have shopping apps that they offer to their customers, such as  drugstores, grocery stores and on-line retailers like Amazon and Overstock, just to name a few.  They were divided almost evenly among price comparison apps, coupon apps and retailer in-store purchase apps.

The FTC’s  28-page report is loaded with regulatory jargon and it isn’t warning of some looming armageddon.   So it is probably only worth reading if you have far too much time on your hands and too much policy-wonk threads in your personal DNA.    But its key finding is an important one:  ” apps studied often failed to provide pre-download information on issues that are important to consumers. Prior to download, few of the in-store purchase apps provided any information explaining consumers’ liability or describing the app’s process for handling payment-related disputes. Additionally, although nearly all of the apps made strong security promises and linked to privacy policies, most privacy policies used vague language that reserved broad rights to collect, use, and share consumer data, making it difficult for readers to understand how the apps actually used consumer data or to compare the apps’ data practices.”

About a third of the apps surveyed reserved the right to share personal data without any restriction at all, according to the report.  Each app creator had divergent policies on important things like  dispute resolution and liability limits, as well as privacy and data security.   Because Congressional gridlock has prevented the creation of a federal privacy law that deals with issues like this,  consumers are forced to try to figure out who is using personal data and whether it is acceptable.   It is a Herculean task for experts, let alone average consumers.

Some of these apps go by names such as “Buy Via”,  “Red Laser”,  “The Find”, “Shop Savvy”,  “Shop Advisor”, “Price Grabber”, “Scan Life”, “Mashalot”, “Slick Deals” and “Smoopa”.   Love some of their names — how can you not love “Smoopa” — but most of them are very sketchy about what they do with the shopping data you provide to them.

For now,  our advice is be careful about which, and how many, shopping apps you download on your mobile device.   If you do business with an on-line retailer, like Amazon, then that company’s “Price Check” shopping app may be useful and sufficiently protected.    But beware many, if not all, apps that help with price comparison or coupon locating.    Be very careful about any of these apps that request any kind of personal information.   Currently,  the shopping app world is one loaded with data gaps and potential face slaps.