Unsolicited direct marketing emails, sent without informed consent, are viewed as a modern scourge by millions and those who engage in such campaigns can expect severe punishment. In one case, a finance company which broke the rules when promoting pre-paid funeral plans received a substantial fine.
The company made use of third-party marketing firms – described as affiliates – who sent out more than four million emails on its behalf. Email addresses were harvested from websites which compiled lists of such addresses by offering services and opportunities, such as competitions, to internet users.
Following an investigation, the Information Commissioner found that the company had seriously contravened the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 in arranging for the emails to be sent without the appropriate consent of recipients. The company was fined £90,000.
In ruling on the company's appeal against that decision, the First-tier Tribunal (FTT) noted that it did not itself obtain email addresses or hold or utilise data lists for direct marketing purposes. However, it had clearly instigated the email campaign in that, had it not been for its contractual relationship with the affiliates, the emails would never have been sent.
If consent had been given at all by recipients, it was not freely given, specific and informed. The contents of the emails had the potential to cause distress, in particular to those who were seriously ill or recently bereaved. Some of the emails appeared to have been gathered from a gambling website and the offers of finance may well have been made to those with existing financial problems or addictions.
The company was, however, relatively small and it was apparently a first offence. It had also discontinued the type of business activity that led to the contravention. The fine was in those circumstances reduced to £60,000.