Are You A Victim of Online Price Discrimination?

Thursday, January 12, 2017 Written by 
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If you use the Internet at all, you’ve probably noticed that ads will often appear to reflect what interests you online.  Try as you may to protect your privacy, companies are tracking your every move.


Depending on what websites you’ve visited, what items you’ve purchased, your location, or what device you may be using, you may get different search results, and even different prices for the same items.


Software developer Christian Bennefeld told CBS News that companies can track virtually everything you do online and use this information to make special online offers and discounts to targeted markets.


Bennefeld is the inventor of the eBlocker, a device that allows him to act as if he were searching from two different devices.  Using two different devices, he said, can produce two different prices.  


Using the example of searching for a hotel room in Paris on Travelocity, Bennefield found a price of $175, and -- for the same hotel – a second price of $198. The results, done basically at the same time, revealed those searching with a PC would pay $23 more than those searching on a mobile phone. 


Travelocity told CBS News: “The difference in price is likely attributable to a deal this hotel was offering to customers on mobile devices exclusively, an increasingly common practice in the travel industry.”


While this practice is not illegal, it seems grossly unfair. A 2014 Northeastern University study found evidence of personalized prices on nine out of 16 e-commerce sites, “including cases where sites altered prices by hundreds of dollars.” On some sites, it said users were steered toward more expensive hotels.


It’s one example of what consumer advocates call price discrimination -- different prices for different people. 


Bennefeld says a consumer likely won’t know the exact reasons. “It depends on the retailer’s strategy on how to price the goods on his particular website,” he said.  But there are ways you can fight back.


To stop companies from tracking you:


•Use the eBlocker device (which you plug into your router at home). The eBlocker can block tracking ads and mask your IP address, making your surfing of shopping sites anonymous. 


Use separate browsers or even separate devices for shopping. However, you may not be guaranteed a lower price if you restrict searches to your mobile device or your laptop.


•You should also make sure to clear your browser history on a regular basis. 


Price discrimination is legal, so until Congress passes a law to make it illegal (don’t hold your breath), it’s your responsibility, as the consumer, to protect yourself. 


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