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December 01, 2005

Address Database: Not Good Enough

Lest anyone think for a moment that I am against all commercial email, let it be known that I do sign up for emailings from online companies with whom I do business or whose products and services interest me. I signed up for those mailings, therefore their messages are not spam to me (and, as long as I'm removed from their lists when I ask to be).

I bring this up because today I received a commercial email message whose innards and disclaimer troubled me. The message originated from one of the seemingly millions of "email marketing" outfits. Due to my personal experience with several of these firms over the years (some of which are detailed in Spam Wars), I admit to starting any investigation with a bad taste in my mouth. Yeah, it's a "guilty until proven innocent" attitude, but there are so many bad apples out there, that the entire category is suspect. I'm not saying there aren't any good guys out there, but I simply won't take any e-marketing Web site's claims at face value, no matter how polished and professional the site looks.

Today's missive was selling products from a company that sells stuff both online and through its mail order catalogs. I believe I have received catalogs in the past, and it's quite possible that within the last two years I actually bought something from the catalog. Did I give them my email address? I simply don't remember. But I do know that I have not purchased anything from them in the past year.

The source code of today's message indicated that had I viewed the message in its HTML format, the images would have been retrieved from the cataloger's site. All clickable links, however, would be directed to the emarketing site, each coded with what I believe is a product number (numbered sequentially through the piece) and a number identifying me (numbered the same throughout the piece). I suspect that after my identifying number was tracked, I would be automatically redirected to the cataloger's site, specifically to the page listing that product's details.

At least the emarketing company, in designing this piece, isn't trying to go out of its way to disguise its involvement. If your email program renders HTML (or you use Web-based email) and a link's destination appears down in the status bar, you'll see the emarketing company's URL, not the cataloger's. It's the emarketer's way of tracking activity to show its cataloger client how many click-throughs arrived because of the emailing campaign. That is no heinous plot.

At this point, however, I don't know if the emarketer is using its own list of email addresses, or if the cataloger handed over its list for the emarketer to use for this campaign. The emarketer swears up and down on its Web site that lists handled in the latter way are kept confidential. Maybe yes, maybe no.

Here comes the troubling part: The disclaimer. It says that the message was intended for me (it shows the address to which this message was sent) and then this gem: "You were added to the database November 14, 2005." It then provides a link I could click on to update my preferences or opt out. The link, however, is to the emarketing firm, not to the cataloger.

So, whose list is it? And how did I get added to it on that date?

If their computers can tell me when I was added to the database, they should also tell me why. If I had placed an order with the cataloger, why not tell me that (along with the date of the order)? If they created the database on that date from the cataloger's long-held list, why not tell me? If it was because they got my address from another source, why not tell me where?

When they don't give me enough information, I feel as though they're hiding something from me. The information should be easily obtained if it's legitimate. The date, by itself, means nothing to me. The explanation of how I got on their list is simply not good enough.

They don't help themselves, either, by stating in the privacy policy that email addresses are used only to send information that I have requested. When, where, how, and through whom did I request to be sent this email message? Tell me! Tell me!!

Despite the fancy-schmancy Web site of the marketing firm, they've given me enough reason to suspect it of being loose with their lists (in acquisition and/or usage). Spam Wars readers know that I'm big on the idea of the sanctity of one's email address. Until I see otherwise, this marketing firm in my eye is abusing my address, having obtained it (directly or indirectly) by harvesting or from an untrustworthy source (who may have harvested).

My impression of the heretofore okay catalog company has dropped a couple of notches, enough to where I won't buy from them again. I'm also blocking receipt of future messages originating from the marketing firm. It's a lose-lose situation.

Posted on December 01, 2005 at 01:23 PM