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Credit card companies try to link purchases, online ads

Credit card companies Visa and MasterCard are exploring plans to use information about customers’ credit card purchases to target them with online advertising, a move that would break new ground in connecting shoppers’ offline and online behavior, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal.

Both companies drew up proposals earlier this year detailing plans to incorporate users’ personal details from places like DNA databanks into profiles that could then be used to target them with advertisements online, according to the WSJ story, or to “link Internet users to information about actual purchase behaviors for ad targeting."

 MasterCard and Visa process billions of credit card transactions per year and keep track of information like date, time, dollar amount, and merchant name, which they then analyze in aggregate. And while the companies don’t collect customers’ names or addresses during these credit card transactions, they do try to link the anonymous purchases with actual customers by using third-party tracking companies, according to the story.

The "holy grail," then, would be “to show, for instance, a weight-loss ad to a person who just swiped their card at a fast-food chain — then track whether that person bought the advertised products.”

The story reports that MasterCard halted its proposal, which was merely “exploratory,” because of restrictions on how it’s allowed to use customer data. It's instead planning to sell aggregated customer data to marketers that’s categorized according to marketing segments, which might then be used for targeted ads online.

And Visa is drumming up ways to use customers’ credit card buying histories in aggregate to target them with online advertising, according to the WSJ, and could even potentially use “information from credit bureaus, information from search engines, information about insurance claims, (and) information from DNA databanks.”

Both companies say their plans are in early stages and the online targeting technology is still being developed. Visa filed a patent application in April describing one way to link credit card behavior with online advertising. When users enter personal information on a Web site, that information could be connected to a broader profile of a particular user, including credit card purchase history. Then, a tracking file would be installed on the user’s computer to target him or her with relevant ads, according to the story.

Both companies in the WSJ story were emphatic that they do not match purchasing behavior with individual users. MasterCard said that it would be impossible to link any of its billions of credit card transactions with any individual customer, and that it “cannot link individual transaction data,” according to the WSJ.