UK Consumer Agency ICO Warns of Text-Spam Crackdown

United Kingdom-based punters who’ve suffered under a growing surge of smart-phone texts that promote the offerings of various online books might see some relief in the coming months, following an announcement by one of the UK’s leading watchdogs agencies that it will be investigating possible misuse and abuse of customers’ personal info by the industry.  The Information Commissioner’s Office, or ICO, has just publicised its intent to investigate over 400 companies serving the UK market, in an attempt to curtail such abuse.

ukflagThe effort appears to be associated with a joint effort announced last month by the UK Gambling Commission and Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) that will look into possibly misleading and deceptive bonus offers and promotions offered by many online firms.  The ICO will tackle the text-spam side of the equation, after a surge in consumer complaints in recent months.

As part of its announcement, the ICO is sending out inquiries to companies, “demanding they set out how they use people’s personal details and send marketing texts.”  Added the ICO, “This includes where they got people’s personal information from and how many texts they sent.”

The ICO also clarified that not all, or even most, of the 400-plus companies being investigated are the online books themselves.  Rather, the large majority of the code-violating texts are alleged to have been sent by third-party affiliates on the books’ behalf.

This passage from the ICO announcement points to the root of the matter:

The ICO is writing to companies identified as being involved in affiliate marketing. This is when firms offer to pay organisations that bring them new customers, sometimes leading to a situation where neither party is taking any responsibility for complying with the rules. The gambling sector is an area where the ICO has become aware of particular problems around affiliate marketing.

Most affiliates are not directly licensed by the UKGC, and many may consider themselves beyond the reach of the regulator’s long arm.  However, this investigation infers that the ICO (and the UKGC, which will also serve as a partner in the investigation), also plan to hold online bookmakers responsible for third-party affiliates based both inside and outside the UK who have implemented abusive text-spam marketing efforts.

David Clancy, ICO’s anti-spam investigations manager, said, “Companies must comply with the law when using people’s personal information. Not knowing the law or trying to pass the buck to another company in the chain is no excuse.  The public expect firms to be accountable for how they obtain and use personal data when marketing by phone, email or text. Fail to be accountable and you could be breaking the law, risking ICO enforcement action and the future of your business.”

The ICO also notes that legitimate companies will — or are supposed to — honor opt-out requests.  The ICO’s web site includes some information on that process:

If you receive marketing by text that you don’t want from an identifiable and legitimate UK based organisation that you know and trust, you should first follow the opt-out instructions provided on the text – which typically involves texting ‘STOP’ to the telephone number or 5-digit short code shown in the text message. The organisation should then stop sending you marketing texts. Legitimate, well-known companies will offer opt-outs, and in many cases things can be resolved quickly without us getting involved.

However, if you continue to receive marketing text messages from the organisation despite following the opt-out instructions you may wish to report this to the ICO.

Separately, the ICO site contains multiple ways for consumers to register a complaint if abuse continues and opt-out requests aren’t honored.