ICO fines profiteering UK firm for touting coronavirus products over spam texts

The UK company sent cold texts offering products “effective against coronavirus.”

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The UK Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has fired a warning shot at companies trying to milk the COVID-19 pandemic for profit by fining a spam-happy marketing firm. 

On Thursday, the consumer protection and data watchdog said that Digital Growth Experts Limited (DGEL), a company registered in London which previously operated as Motorhome Brokers Ltd., "flouted the law in order to profiteer from the coronavirus pandemic."

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The ICO claims that DGEL sent over 16,000 cold, nuisance marketing texts to UK consumers between February and April this year -- at the height of the pandemic's first wave. 
 
DGEL's "profiteering" messages offered hand sanitizers to the general public, together with the promise that the products were "effective against coronavirus."

The hand sanitizer, called "Zoono," was offered on Zoono.io, a website set up by the company. Now, visiting the domain leads to a US eBay store offering the same product, but there is no mention of COVID-19 or its apparent protection against the virus. 

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The spam messages were sent via Voodoo SMS, a bulk SMS message platform. According to the ICO, DGEL claimed to have obtained its marketing list via "website lead capture," but regulators were not satisfied that this explanation could be considered a legal, soft opt-in marketing program. 

Current UK legislation says that "a person shall neither transmit, nor instigate the transmission of, unsolicited communications for the purposes of direct marketing by means of electronic mail unless the recipient of the electronic mail has previously notified the sender that he consents for the time being to such communications being sent by, or at the instigation of, the sender."

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In other words, under UK law -- in particular, the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 (PECR) -- unwanted solicitation via email and text is illegal, and in this case, no substantial evidence of consent from subscribers receiving marketing messages from DGEL was found. 

As a result, the ICO has fined the company £60,000 ($76,000). 

"DGEL 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," commented Andy Curry, Head of Investigations at the ICO. "We will prioritize action on organizations carrying out similar activity."