Bristol firm pummelled for ‘profiteering from Covid-19’

corona-5150888_1920Those who claim the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is all mouth, no trousers when it comes to enforcement have been given something to cheer after the regulator issued its first fine to a business for sending unlawful marketing texts to capitalise and profit from the coronavirus pandemic.

Back in April, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham vowed to take “a strong regulatory approach” against any organisation breaching data protection laws to take advantage of the current crisis.

Now, a Bristol based company has become the ICO’s first scalp.

Digital Growth Experts was incorporated in December last year by sole director Andrew Hughes, originally under the name of Motorhome Brokers Limited.

However, within weeks Hughes had changed the name of the firm and set up a website Zoono.io to market Zoono brand products. The website suggests it is part of the Digital Growth Experts “community”.

Among these products is the Zoono hand sanitising product, which was promoted in a flurry of text messages, of which 16,190 were received between February 29 and April 30 at the height of the first wave of the outbreak.

But the messages, which claimed the brand was “effective against coronavirus”, triggered a raft of complaints to the short text 7726 spam reporting service operated by mobile industry body the GSMA.

These gripes were then forwarded to the ICO and incorporated into the regulator’s Monthly Threat Assessment, which is used to identify organisations in breach of the Privacy & Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR), the law that covers all phone, text and email marketing.

During its ensuing investigation, the ICO maintains Digital Growth Experts was unclear and inconsistent in its responses, and it was unable to provide sufficient evidence that it had the consent required under PECR to send the messages.

Issuing a £60,000 fine to the business – which unusually for such a firm is still actually trading – Digital Growth Experts has also been slapped with an enforcement notice ordering it to comply with PECR within 30 days of receipt of the notice.

ICO head of investigations Andy Curry said: “Digital Growth Experts played upon people’s concerns at a time of great public uncertainty, acting with a blatant disregard for the law, and all in order to feather its own pockets. We will prioritise action on organisations carrying out similar activity.

“Direct marketing laws are clear and it is the responsibility of businesses to ensure they comply. Ignorance of it or attempting to rely on vague and misleading evidence in support of a marketing campaign simply does not wash.

“The sending of nuisance marketing texts are a significant concern to the public, and the ICO will continue to take action where our advice is not followed and where we find serious, systemic or negligent behaviour that puts people’s information rights at risk.”

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