UK data watchdog fines three text spammers for flouting electronic marketing rules

'High-pressure' sales tactics targeted people registered with Telephone Preference Service

A "debt management company" is itself facing a bill from Britain's data regulator for sending hundreds of thousands of text messages to households that opted not to receive marketing junk mail.

Digivo Media Ltd, which traded as Rid My Debt, dispatched 415,000 texts over five and a half months ending September 2021, according to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

The offending messages promised "free advice" and a "free pack" should people go the company website. But the recipients were registered with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) so Digivo Media was breaching Privacy and Electronics Communications Regulations (PECR). The ICO fined the company £50,000 ($61,110).

Misery loves company, and another entry in the ICO hall of shame this week is MCP Online, which is nursing a £55,000 penalty ($67,221) for making an unspecified number of "unsolicited financial services calls about pensions," the ICO said. Again, those on the receiving end were registered with the TPS.

The biggest fine of the three, £65,000 ($79,443), went to Argentum Data Solutions (ADS), a data processing and hosting provider for businesses to send direct marketing SMS messages to people formally registered with TPS.

The ICO found ADS had sent and allowed third parties to send upwards of 2.3 million direct marketing texts. The topic of the messages ranged from car finance compensation claims to housing repairs.

Andy Curry, head of investigations at the ICO, said in a statement: "We're working to stop these unscrupulous companies who use predatory marketing communications to target people who are, or who may be, at the most risk of harm. These people could be your elderly parents, grandparents or even a neighbour who might have dementia and the last thing they need is a barrage of unwanted text messages or nuisance calls.

"High-pressured sales calls pushing financial products can cause real distress and harm to the people on the receiving end. That's why we support the government's recent consultation calling for a ban on cold calling for consumer financial services and products, and believe this could help reduce the amount of these predatory marketing calls."

ICO penalties for businesses that flout PECR come thick and fast, including five made famous in September for collectively making 1.9 million call to TPS members, and a pair of energy suppliers in June that posed as the National Grid and UK government.

It's not only SMEs that are rapped by the ICO – Halfords was fined a year ago for breaching email marketing laws. No doubt there'll be more offenders in the not too distant future, which rather suggests that these fines aren't a huge deterrent.

The ICO issued 34 fines in 2022, the vast majority of which were for breaking electronic marketing rules. According to analysis by cybersecurity and data protection biz URM Consulting, the fines brought in £16 million ($19.5 million) to the Treasury, though the biggest, £7.5 million ($9.2 million) against Clearview, was cancelled recently. ®

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