15 May 2015
The curse of the pre-ticked box
Marketing emails are a big business these days. And it's a strange old world. Lists of email addresses are sold to companies for vast sums of money - who then contact their new cold leads in the knowledge that only a small percentage of the recipients will even open the mail, let alone respond to it.
My first ever email account - which I continue to give out whenever prompted for an address - now receives over 150 emails in the spam folder every day. It recieves as many into the main inbox - and most of these are spam as well. Some of the messages are definitely things that I signed up for. But vast quantities of my mail are from companies that I have no interest in dealing with. Viagra dealers, erectile disfunction medicine suppliers, sub-prime lenders, bingo websites - the list goes on.
My guess is that this particular email address has been sold dozens of times over - and it's almost impossible to know whether or not this has been done with my explicit consent.
You might say that this is an unfortunate but necessary side-effect of the creation of internet marketing. When it works, it's great to receive relevant offers and news into your mailbox. And when it doesn't, it's a nuisance.
But it should surely be possible to have more control over what you do and don't receive. Once you've given your consent for people to share your email address or phone number with their partners, you've given up all hope of that address being free of unwanted emails. In an ideal world, there would be some kind of central registry where you could see who had permission to email you - and where you could alter those permissions if you wished. For now, however, you have to contact each company individually and request to be removed from their mailing list. And many don't make this particularly straightforward.
Given the way things stand, companies need to work much harder to give you a clear choice as to whether you want to opt into receiving their emails and other people's. And rather than talking about "carefully selected partners", they should tell you exactly who they plan to pass it onto. Once a different company is given your email address, I'd like them to have to contact you and confirm that it's ok for them to get in touch regularly.
At the moment, however, we're miles from this kind of world. Instead, many companies still opt you into receiving their marketing material as a condition of you buying their product - they don't even offer you a pre-ticked box to untick.
Fairer Finance has started taking a look at this practice in the banking and insurance industries - and have found that around a third of firms don't give you any choice about opting into marketing consent. Another 50% pre-tick the box which says you give them permission to contact you. While only a tiny minority actively give customers the choice to tick the box.
Sadly, this kind of behaviour comes as little surprise. After all, many of these businesses have built their entire model around exploiting customers' apathy and inertia - rather than encouraging them to proactively make good decisions. But it's all the worse when they extend the use of pre-ticked boxes beyond data consent and through to important finanical decisions. I've written before about the fact that around a qaurter of insurers automatically opt customers into paying for their insurance by the month - even when they've told a comparison site that they won't to pay annually.
And in the travel insurance market, it's common to be opted into baggage cover, or money cover - rather than being given the choice to decide whether you want these features.
The financial regulator - the FCA - is getting to grips with some of these issues, but it's slow progress. As for the data issue, that's a matter for the Information Commissioner's Office - which I'm told is also upping its game, but has little to show for it so far.
I'd like to see pre-ticked boxes banned in all their forms. People should be empowered to make decisions for themselves when they're buying products directly from banks or insurers. Without this engagement, it's too easy to breeze through the purchase pricess and not understand what you're bought. The 1990s and 2000s were the era of mis-selling, and now we're moving into the era of mis-buying. Companies carry just as much responsibility for this if they are deliberately creating the circumstances for consumers to sleepwalk into the wrong financial decisions.