How online shopping firm’s jar opener led to huge fine for breaking data protection rules

You can feel the sense of powerless frustration in the online review of catalogue company Easylife.

“How do I stop repeated phone calls asking me to sign up to a reward scheme?” it reads.

“Each time I have patiently answered, often at inconvenient times, and asked them not to call again.

“The one order we placed was for items we found substandard anyway but have just had yet another call about this scheme, at least the fifteenth.”

Now Easylife has been fined for illegally making unwanted sales calls to people registered with the Telephone Preference Service.

It was ordered to pay £130,000 for 1,345,732 calls that the Information Commissioner’s Office said left people feeling angry, anxious, threatened and distressed.

Easylife is run from Sittingbourne, Kent, by chief executive Greg Caplan, and had a £51.6million turnover according to its latest accounts – and the cold calling fine is just the start of its woes.

In a groundbreaking prosecution, it was fined a further £1,350,000 for illegally using the personal information of 145,400 customers to try to flog health remedies.

If a person bought a jar opener or a dinner tray, for instance, Easylife would guess they had arthritis and try to sell glucosamine joint patches.

“We are starting to identify and prosecute these kinds of profiling cases where an organisation makes assumptions about somebody’s characteristics based on other purchases they have made and markets to them on that basis,” said John Edwards, the Information Commissioner.

“There’s a lack of transparency, there was no declaration that when you purchased one item they were going to infer things about you from that purchase and market other products to you.

There’s nothing wrong with keeping data saying that a person bought a device to open jars.

“The criticism is they are then saying we believe there’s a good chance they have got arthritis and based on that assumption, they then try to sell health products. People have not been told this is how their data will be used.

“In society people do regard their medical life as private so many people would be affronted or offended to find out that a company has said ‘We think that you’ve got a particular medical condition’ based on a proxy data point of an unrelated item they’ve purchased.”

Out of 122 items in the Easylife Health Club catalogue, 80 were “trigger items” that would result in the company profiling the customer and targeting them with unsolicited marketing.

“I’m not sure how much of this conduct is occurring out there, we’re hoping by making this public we will flush more of those out and improve conduct in that marketing sector,” added Mr Edwards.

Easylife did not respond to an offer to comment.

Earlier this week, the Information Commissioner acted against four other companies that illegally called people registered with the Telephone Preference Service.

Posh Windows UK Ltd, of Stoke-on-Trent, was fined £150,000 for 461,062 calls.

Eco Spray Insulations Ltd of Eastleigh, Hampshire, was fined £100,000 for 178,190 calls.

Euroseal Windows Ltd, of Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffs, was fined £80,000 for 169,830 calls.

UPDATE.

Easylife has now issued this statement:

“Easylife has simply done what the ICO has already admitted to us that lots of businesses do day in day out. Easylife was simply trying to minimise the number of calls it made to its customers, but it seems that the ICO and its new Commissioner, John Edwards, would prefer it if businesses like Easylife made more untargeted calls to their customers and not fewer more targeted calls.

“In any event, Easylife stopped the practice complained of by the ICO upon receipt of its complaint, pending clarification of the law in this area. Easylife fundamentally disagrees with the ICO both that it has broken the law and also in relation to the level of fine imposed, which is out of all proportion to the alleged wrong.”