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How to Find the Best Customer Loyalty Programs

Before you sign up for discounts, read the fine print

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If you're on a tight budget and you're a bargain junkie like me, you've probably signed up for dozens of retail loyalty programs. They're offered nearly everywhere you spend money: supermarkets, drugstores, fast-food chains — even Uber has one! And they're hard to resist: Most are free to join, and you may get discounts or freebies just for signing up, followed by sales alerts, coupons, reward dollars and other giveaways.

Be aware, though, that companies then get access to personal information like phone numbers, birthdays and the products you buy frequently. All that could put you at greater risk of identity theft, says Kevin Haley, director of security response at Norton LifeLock.

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But whether or not you join these programs, companies are still collecting tons of info about you. And by not signing up, you may miss out on big savings. So they can be worth it. Here's how to increase your savings with your loyalty while minimizing your risk.

1. Be selective.

List the places where you most often shop and eat out, and check each one online for loyalty programs. Signing up is usually worth the effort and risk only if you're a regular. I recently shaved more than $45 off a $200 bill with my Stop & Shop card and app. I'm also a regular at CVS, where loyalty-card coupons, a 2 percent rewards-credit program and sales saved me $159 in just the past year. Walgreens, which has a similar program, gives you 1 percent back, with extra points for special promotions — including some for AARP members.

2. Get all your goodies.

Go online to brush up on program benefits; many are adding some excellent and surprising perks. I recently learned that DSW's newly refreshed VIP program gives me points for donating old shoes at their stores, as well as free shipping and returns online. Some programs, such as the Nordy club at Nordstrom and the retailer Sephora's Beauty Insider club, offer free services like beauty workshops and makeovers.

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3. Limit what you share.

Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, has joined a few loyalty programs — though he chooses not to use his real name. You, too, should be cautious about sharing personal info. To reduce spam in your primary email account, set up a separate account just for these programs. And use a different password for each program — just as you should for any online account — in case one suffers a security breach, Haley says. “More than 20 percent of people use the same password everywhere,” he says. That makes it easy for cyber thieves to break into accounts.

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4. Be smart about loyalty-program apps.

They may reward you with extras, but they can also collect a large assortment of data. When you download an app, it may ask permission to access your contacts, camera, microphone and location. So pay attention during installation, and don't grant access to anything unless absolutely necessary. Keep in mind that retailers’ apps may also share your information with other companies. Unfortunately, the only way to know what's collected and where it goes is to read those often mind-numbing and confusing privacy policies. I decided that the Stop & Shop app, for one, was worth the download. I'm not happy that it collects a lot of my info. But unlike other retailers, Stop & Shop clearly states that it won't disclose personal data to companies outside its corporate family.

5. Play tag.

Grocery stores and drugstores use tagging on their shelves to identify products that are currently being discounted for loyalty-program members. These sale items change constantly. So look for good deals on your staples, and when you see one, stock up! Buying storable items only when they go on sale is the best way to save at supermarkets and drugstores.

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Lisa Lee Freeman, cohost of the Hot Shopping Tips podcast, was founder and editor in chief of ShopSmart magazine from Consumer Reports and an investigative reporter for the Dr. Oz Show.

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