Gotcha! Catalogue firm battered for mass data abuse

easylife 2Controversial catalogue retailer Easylife, which has been the subject of numerous accusations of sharp sales practices, has finally been nailed by the Information Commissioner’s Office after being fined £1.48m for breaking data protection and electronic marketing laws.

The company, set up in 1992 by South African national Gregory Caplan, has a number of divisions that sell everyday household items, from support cushions to patio cleaners, although many of its products target the elderly.

According to its website its mission is to “create strong foundations of talent, knowledge and excellent systems in order to deliver ethical products and services to the world, across multi-channels, as a company that cares”.

However, the ICO launched an investigation into its practices after receiving a number of complaints. The investigation found that when a customer purchased a product from Easylife’s Health Club catalogue, the company would make assumptions about their medical condition and then market health-related products to them without their consent.

For example, if a person bought a jar opener or a dinner tray, Easylife would use that purchase data to assume that person has arthritis and then call the individual to market glucosamine joint patches.

Out of 122 products in Easylife’s Health Club catalogue, 80 items were considered to be ‘trigger products’. Once these products were purchased, Easlylife would profile the customer to target them with a health-related item.

The ICO found that significant profiling of customers and ‘invisible’ processing of health data took place. It is ‘invisible’ because people were unaware the company was collecting and using their personal data for that purpose and against data protection law.

In a separate investigation the ICO found that, between 1 August 2019 and 19 August 2020, Easylife made 1,345,732 unwanted marketing calls to people registered with the Telephone Preference Service.

Under the Privacy & Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR), live marketing calls should not be made to anyone who has registered with the TPS, unless they have told the caller that they wish to receive calls from them.

Many of the complainants said they felt angry, anxious, threatened, and distressed in response to their calls. One of the complainants was an elderly hearing-impaired person registered with the TPS who had been unable to hear most of the call, where another individual was mis-sold two subscriptions and required a family member’s help to arrange a refund.

The ICO has fined Easylife £1,350,000 for using personal information of 145,400 customers to predict their medical condition and target them with health-related products without their consent. The company was also fined £130,000 for making 1,345,732 predatory direct marketing calls.

UK Information Commissioner John Edwards said: “Easylife was making assumptions about people’s medical condition based on their purchase history without their knowledge, and then pedalled them a health product – that is not allowed.

“The invisible use of people’s data meant that people could not understand how their data was being used and, ultimately, were not able to exercise their privacy and data protection rights. The lack of transparency, combined with the intrusive nature of the profiling, has resulted in a serious breach of people’s information rights.

“Easylife was not only found guilty of breaching data protection law, but our investigation also discovered that they made thousands of predatory marketing calls to people who clearly did not want to receive them.

“It is clear from the complaints we received that people felt threatened and distressed by the company’s aggressive tactics. This is unacceptable. Companies making similar nuisance calls and causing harm to people can expect a strong response from my office.”

Concerns over Easylife’s sharp practices first emerged in 2016 and in 2018 Money Mail contacted Trading Standards after being inundated with complaints from dozens of Easylife customers and concerned relatives.

Shoppers said that after handing over card details, they had been signed up to membership of one of Easylife’s clubs, including a motor club which offers discounts on car maintenance and a Supercard club promising cash off high street purchases.

Typically, Easylife took a small administration fee of £2 or £3 then sent customers a letter informing them they had 14 days to cancel membership or the full amount would be debited from their account.

But customers say they never agreed to join in the first place, and knew nothing about the clubs until payments of up to £70 were taken from their bank account. When they tried to get their money back, they were refused or had to battle Easylife staff for weeks on end.

At the time, an Easylife spokesman told Money Mail: “Our reputation is everything to us. We don’t do aggressive selling. We abide strictly by all relevant legal rules. Where something has gone wrong, we strive to put it right quickly and efficiently.

“Our customer service team records all sales calls and we are clear that no rules have been broken. However, Easylife has taken the decision to refund all customers highlighted in Money Mail‘s investigation as an act of goodwill and best practice. All those affect will receive their money back.”

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