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Still Receiving Unwanted Mail? Mailers Hear Your Complaints

Catalog Choice receives lots of kudos from our members about how the service has made a real difference in cleaning out mailbox clutter. Thank you! But over the years we’ve also received comments from consumers that opt-out requests were not honored and that the service failed to live up to expectations. Ouch!  Our small, dedicated team takes this feedback seriously and we never stop looking for ways to make Catalog Choice work better for you.

By and large, most mailers do the right thing. They don’t want to send mail that doesn’t interest you and they honor opt-outs made through Catalog Choice. We appreciate all the companies that demonstrate responsible marketing by respecting your mail preferences. But whether it’s an unintentional data matching error, resending marketing material if you purchase from the company recently (even on the Internet), or at worst, a company that blatantly blocks or ignores requests from Catalog Choice, we know that sometimes the unwanted mail keeps on coming.

To address the issue, Catalog Choice made an enhancement in October that significantly improves our ability to track compliance and gives you a way to take action if companies are not honoring your requests.  We have been testing the effectiveness of our new complaint model and are pleased to report that it works quite well.

Here’s how it works…

If you made an opt-out request at least 90 days ago but you are still receiving the marketing material in the mail, you can now submit a complaint to that company through Catalog Choice.

To submit a complaint, go to Your Choices, use the filter to find the Company and Select Details button, as shown below.

The complaint button only appears in your Activity Statement 90 days after the request is made. Ninety days gives the company a reasonable amount of time to remove you from their mailing list. Here’s a sample of the Activity Statement, which is a detailed record of each of your preference requests, the company’s receipt of the request, and the current status. Below is a picture of the top part of the Activity Statement.  See the complaint button?

Click the Complaint Button and fill out our streamlined complaint form.  It is best to have the repeat mailing with you so that the company can find your name on the recent mailing list.

Here is an image of the complaint form.  Make sure you select the correct name and address if you have made requests under multiple name/address combinations.

For many companies, the complaint is sent to a specific person in the company that has been assigned to address Catalog Choice complaints.  We request that the company reply to the complaint email within 30 days to confirm that your opt-out request will be honored. If the company needs more information in order to process the request, you’ll get an inquiry back from them.

We work closely with companies to get the complaints resolved in a timely manner. Since opt-out requests and complaints are submitted according to the terms of the company's privacy policy, it is deceptive for a company to say that they honor opt-outs but not actually do so. As a result, any complaint not resolved in 30 days will be entered into the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network, if you authorize us to do so at the bottom of the complaint form. While the FTC does not respond to individual complaints, this consumer complaint network allows authorities to look for trends relating to companies engaged in deceptive and unfair business practices.

This robust complaint system empowers you, the consumer, to communicate your mail preferences loud and clear if they have not been honored. The enhancement also ensures a level playing field for all companies. No mailer who honors choice should be at a marketing disadvantage because other companies fail to respect your mail preferences.

ACMA on Privacy

We talk to trade association executives on a regular basis.  They have a difficult job.  They must represent the best interest of their members at all cost.  The association that we are consistently impressed by is the American Catalog Mailers Association (ACMA).  The ACMA, which is lead by Hamilton Davison and Paul Miller, have maintained open lines of communication with Catalog Choice since we came on the scene in 2007.

Recently, we have been discussing the issue of privacy with the ACMA.  Yesterday, they dedicated their entire monthly newsletter to the issue.  Here is the key advice that the ACMA gave to catalog mailers across the United States.
As part of a continuing series on privacy issues, the Wall Street Journal conducted an investigation, which revealed a slew of Facebook apps have been directly feeding advertising firms and online tracking tools access to Facebook users’ and friends’ names, impacting tens of millions of users. As the Journal report notes, this runs counter to Facebook’s privacy principals. And even though Facebook isn’t doing anything itself and doesn’t stand to gain anything from this data, it also demonstrates that Facebook can’t keep its users’ personal information secure. If you haven't already, I strongly suggest you read it when finished with this. First consider this:

You’re a privacy-conscious catalog marketer who (I’ll assume) responsibly shares your customers’ and prospects’ data with other marketers. You already reject requests from “fly-by-night” marketers so no one uses your customer names inappropriately. You pay equally close attention to customer opt-out wishes. So you may be asking why you should concern yourself with the far higher-tech privacy woes of Facebook? Consider this very realistic potential chain of events:

  • Facebook’s flagship users are college kids. High school, middle school and even elementary school kids have also become an large contingent. Recently, Facebook has caught on with an older crowd, yet kids remain its largest user group.

  • What do parents do? They protect their kids. (Defend to the death is more like it.) Here is our prediction: On the heels of various news stories like this one, worried parents rain a maelstrom of demands on Congress that something be done to protect their kids’ privacy. Immediately!

  • What does this have to do with the responsible exchange of mailing lists and data? Pretty simple. Just take a look at the Boucher Privacy Discussion Draft from this past spring. Were it passed, the bill’s large dragnet included basic catalog data-collection practices that would effectively shut down our industry overnight. It’s inevitable other similar bills will be introduced in the near future.

The ACMA is calling on all members to show we are different and we are responsible. At a minimum, we strongly recommend the following:

  • Every cataloger should check their privacy policies. The FTC is watching. Be in compliance. No exceptions. Really bad things can happen otherwise.

  • Use the best practices with regard to consumers’ preferences. We must have a documentable paper trail of respecting consumer requests. Plus, satisfying customer wishes is just good business. Now more than ever, we need to be able to show we are the good corporate citizens we’ve always been.

  • To make sure the above is not an empty claim, here is what we need to be doing now:

  1. Review your privacy policy for full and accurate compliance.

  2. Respect and apply suppression requests received from DMAChoice and Catalog Choice.

  3. Document that you do these in writing.


Member Report

Doug left this comment on a prior post.  With his permission, we are reposting it here:

Doug first heard about our service on the Today Show.  Here is what he has to say:
Thanks for this valuable service and continuing to improve it! I won't lie and say it's been easy, but after a dedicated effort to report catalogs as they arrived in my mail I CAN SEE A HUGE IMPROVEMENT!

The realization came as I went to the mailbox the other day and found only one bill (can't you make THOSE go away too???) while my neighbor pulled a huge stack of catalogs out of his box. Not a scientific comparison but it feels good anyway!

Thanks again!

If you have a story you want to tell, post it in the comments or email us at team(at)

What's Covered in the Unlisting Service

The Unlisting Service addresses a different group of companies and uses a different approach than our free title-specific service. The Unlisting Service is like a "valet" service. You sign up and we do all the work. We work to suppress your name and personal information from companies who don’t mail to you directly. We contact the third-party marketing companies who compile lists and sell them to the direct mailers. The free title-specific service is for companies that contact you directly and you need to set your contact preference with each company.

The best way to understand the difference between our two services is to see which parts of the personal data ecosystem they address.  Yes, the flow of data is so complex that the experts have coined this term.   The image below, developed by the FTC as part of their Privacy Roundtable, shows the complexity of the personal data ecosystem in the United States.  We have annotated the image to show the areas where the Unlisting Service applies and where the free title-specific opt-out service applies.

The Data Users, circled in blue, are either companies that you have done business with or companies that want your business. They include product & service delivery, banks, marketers and the media. These are the companies that our free, title-specific opt-out service addresses.

The Data Brokers, circled in red, are companies that aggregate personal information from a wide array of sources (described below under Data Sources) and sell marketing lists to companies for marketing purposes. They include catalog co-ops, list brokers, affiliates, information brokers and websites. These companies use sophisticated algorithms that leverage your purchase patterns, geography, home value, demographics and other factors to ensure that their targeted marketing lists include people with similar tastes and preferences.

If you value targeted offers from new companies, you should not subscribe to the Unlisting Service.  If you want to reduce the volume of marketing material that you receive from companies that you have not done business with in the past, the Unlisting Service is perfect for you.  We will contact the top Data Brokers and have your name suppressed from their marketing lists in accordance with their privacy policy.

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In addition to Data Brokers, the Unlisting Service will also address personal search services that publicly provide a dossier about you for anyone to view.

The Source of the Data

The image below is a blow-up of the center part of the ecosystem - the Data Collectors.  The personal data ecosystem starts with the hundreds of companies that we buy products and services from (retail, medical, financial, insurance, telecommunications, social networking services), the public bodies that oversee real property and professional licenses and the media.  When we provide our personal information to these companies and organizations, we receive services in return.  They need our personal information to fulfill the business services that we require.  It is at this level of the data ecosystem that we need to understand the privacy policy and data sharing policies.

Thanks to the Health Information Privacy Act (HIPA), our health care providers are very careful about providing us clear notice about the privacy of our personal health data.  Thanks to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), there are strict rules that financial services and credit reporting companies follow about the disclosure and use of our personal financial data.  But the laws stop there.  The use of our personal information by most of the other companies we rely on are governed by a set of international principles - the Fair Information Practice principles (FIPS).  These principles call for companies to provide clear notice about the information they are collecting and how they use it, as well as your choice to control their use of the data.

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We hope that this detailed explanation of the data ecosystem and the differences between our new Unlisting Service and the free title-specific opt-out service are clear. If you have questions, please add your comments below. While the Unlisting Service is a premium program reserved for donors, we have included all of the companies in the Unlisting Service in our free title-specific directory. If you would like to go through the process of opting out without donating, you can find all the companies in the Find Companies portion of the website.

Your California Privacy Rights

Senate Bill 27, introduced by California State Senator Liz Figueroa, is commonly known as the 'Shine the Light' law (CA Civil Code 1798.80-84).  The law went into effect on January 1, 2005.  Unfortunately, very few people are aware of this law.  Until now. As with many privacy protections, it is onerous to file a complaint.  As a result, very few consumers take the time to exercise their privacy rights.  Catalog Choice is focused on making it easy for you to exercise your privacy rights.  As part of our new complaint process, we will be automating the process of filing a Civil Code 1798.80-84 request.  In the meantime, take a moment and read the following to familiarize yourself with the Shine the Light law.

The following is a summary of the law published by the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
When you’ve received junk mail, have you ever wondered which company provided your name and address to the marketer? Now you can find out. The “Shine the Light” law requires certain businesses to disclose their information-sharing practices with their customers. Upon request, companies must tell you with whom they have shared your personal information for marketing purposes within the last twelve months.

What businesses must comply with the law?

  • Businesses with 20 or more employees.

  • Businesses that have an established business relationship with a California resident. In other words, your request can be made to companies with which you have an account or from which you have purchased a product or service.

  • Businesses that have shared your information with third parties for marketing purposes within the last twelve months.

What businesses are exempt from the law?

  • Any business that offers its California customers the ability to say “no” to selling their personal information, either through an opt-in or opt-out.

  • Nonprofit organizations including charities and religious organizations asking for donations.

  • Politicians and other political groups that are fundraising.

  • Banks and financial institutions.

  • Any business that provides public real estate records information where information was not directly provided by a customer.

  • Credit reporting bureaus.

What does the law require businesses to do?

  • Businesses that are covered by the law must provide instructions about how to make your disclosure request. A company must offer you one of these three options:

    • It must tell you how to make your request when you ask one of its customer service representatives.

    • Or, it must make written information available to customers at all California business locations with regular customer contact.

    • Or, the company can post information on its web site. If a business chooses to provide instructions about how to make your disclosure request on its web site, look for terms like "Your Privacy Rights" or "Your California Privacy Rights."

  • For each of these methods, the company must provide a mailing address, email address, toll-free number or toll-free fax number for customers to make their disclosure request.

What must be included in the disclosure?

  • A business' response must disclose the categories of personal information disclosed to third parties. This includes information such as: name, address, email address, phone number, Social Security number, payment history, debit or credit card information, occupation, banking information, and profile information such as hobbies and interests, marital status, height, weight, religion, age, gender, and household income level. (See the text of Civil Code 1798.83 for full details of categories).

  • They must provide the list of companies to which your personal information was disclosed for marketing purposes within the last calendar year.

  • However, companies that have a Privacy Policy or Privacy Notice that allows you to opt-in or opt-out of the sharing of your personal information, do not need to provide you with disclosure about the categories of personal information that were shared and with whom. Instead, the company must simply provide a copy of its opt-in or opt-out policy so you can minimize the sharing of your personal information.

What are my rights under the law?

  • A company must respond to your Information-Sharing Disclosure request within 30 days.

  • If you make your request in a manner not noted in the company's disclosure policy (to an email address, mailing address, toll-free number or fax number different from those designated for making a disclosure request), the company has 150 days to respond instead of 30 days.

  • A company does not need to respond to a second request within a one year time frame.

  • If the business fails to respond to a disclosure request, the customer may collect a civil penalty of up to $500. If a company willfully or intentionally does not comply with a disclosure request, the customer can recover a civil penalty of up to $3,000. Plaintiffs may also be entitled to attorneys fees.

Where can I find more information?

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