We Buy Any Car (WBAC) has been fined £200,000 by the Information Commissioner's Office after sending 191 million emails and what it described as 3.6 million “nuisance texts”.
The ICO said the communications were sent by Constellation Automotive's car buying platform “without fully satisfying the requirements of the soft opt in”. This resulted in 42 complaints to the ICO over a period of 12 months.
WBAC was fined alongside Sports Direct and Saga, which were also fined after sending ‘frustrating and intrusive’ nuisance messages.
A spokesperson for WBAC told AM that the business was unable to comment at this time as it was "considering the decision and its appeal options".
Andy Curry, ICO head of investigations, said: ”Getting a ping on your phone or constant unwanted messages on your laptop from a company you don’t want to hear from is frustrating and intrusive.
“These companies should have known better. These fines show the ICO will tackle unsolicited marketing, irrespective of whether the messages have been orchestrated by a small business or organisation, or a leading household name.
“The law remains the same and we hope today’s action sends out a deterrent message that members of the public must have their choices and privacy respected.”
Curry added that companies sending direct marketing messages must first have people’s consent and that people must understand what they are consenting to when they hand over their personal information.
We Buy any Car sent emails to people who had requested an online valuation of their vehicles.
The ICO found that the initial emails sent after a valuation request were made within the law, but that subsequent emails which also promoted the We Buy Any Car service were unlawful because they contained marketing as well as being sent without consent.
The ICO has issued 17 fines totalling more than £1.7 million so far this year (2021/22) for breaches of direct marketing laws.
The automotive industry relies on "legitimate interest"
Fraser Brown, founder and managing director of MotorVise Automotive, said the automotive retail industry is heavily reliant on legitimate interest as a reason for contacting customers and this is still the right approach.
Brown said: “If a customer has bought from you as a business you are well within your rights to contact them through legitimate interest.
“Even if a customer has enquired, you are still within your rights to contact, but there should be a limited window of between six to 12 months where this is acceptable.
“You have to balance the fundamental rights of the consumer against your legitimate interest.”
Brown also urged retailers to create a clear opt-out page on their own websites to make it easy for consumers to manage their marketing preferences.
Brown said: “Offering a clear opt-out process is sufficient and there are still dealer groups committing commercial suicide by asking customers to opt-in, even if they have already bought a vehicle from them.
“Opt-ins simply are not necessary as long as you offer a clear opt-out process and act on that opt-out within 28 days.”
Brown added that the biggest risk facing automotive retailers from the ICO is for a poor process to act on any opt-outs, whether that’s through digital contact or if a customer has asked for marketing emails to stop in person at the showroom. This has been put into sharp focus by the WBAC fine of £200,000 after 42 complaints.
He said: “Where dealer groups will come unstuck is from not acting on opt-outs from customers and not having a clear enough process in place.
“For any dealer groups that are unsure I would also urge them to get in contact with the ICO directly. They are actually really good to deal with and will help in any way they can to help businesses to be compliant.”