A catalogue retailer has been issued with a huge fine for using customers’ shopping habits to try to predict their health problems and then bombarding them with aggressive calls to sell related medical products.
The Information Commissioner’s Office levied a £1.35 million penalty against Easylife for the abuse of customers’ data and further £130,000 for making more than 1.3 million “predatory” direct marketing calls.
The company sells home and garden products, clothes and gadgets, as well as health and beauty products.
The data watchdog’s investigation found that the retailer would make assumptions about the medical condition of a customer when they bought certain products. If a customer bought a jar opener or a dinner tray, for example, Easylife would assume that they had arthritis and call the individual to market glucosamine joint patches.
Easylife was found to be selling 80 items that would trigger medical cross marketing.
The investigation found that “significant” and “invisible” profiling of customers took place, with those targeted unaware the company was collecting and using their personal data for the purpose of selling them related items.
In a separate investigation, the data watchdog found that Easylife made 1,345,732 unwanted marketing calls to people registered with the Telephone Preference Service in the year to August 2020. People register with the service when they do not want to receive unsolicited calls.
The Information Commissioner’s Office said it had received 16 complaints about Easylife, with people saying they felt angry, anxious, threatened and distressed in response to the calls.
In a statement, John Edwards, the Information Commissioner 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.”
Easylife’s accounts show that the company increased pre-tax profits by more than 2,000 per cent to £2.13 million in 2020.
The data watchdog’s biggest ever fine was in 2020 when it charged British Airways £20 million for failing to protect the personal data of more than 400,000 customers.
Members of the public who believe that their personal data has been misused or that they have been the victim of nuisance texts, calls or emails, can report them to the ICO on 0303 123 1113.