Stop Junk Mail

The Science of Junk Busting

Guide to Stamping Out Junk Mail

Junk mail and the deceased

Receiving junk mail addressed to a deceased relative or friend is offensive and painful. Thanks to the junk mail industry's insistence on using people's personal details as a commodity it's also needlessly difficult to stop junk mail sent to someone who has died.

Allegedly, the average person is sent no less than 80 pieces of addressed junk mail in the first year following death. The statistic almost certainly overestimates the scale of the problem but it's a very real problem nonetheless. Getting unsolicited mail for a deceased relative or friend can be incredibly painful, especially when it continues years after the person has died.

As per usual, it's a problem that could easily be solved by the junk mail industry. Before discussing what the industry could do, though, let's look at what you can do.

Contact the sender-offender

The most obvious solution is to contact the sender directly. Explain that the intended recipient has died and ask what action the sender will take to prevent further mail-outs. I recommend contacting the sender via e-mail as you will automatically have a record of your request; should the junk mail continue you can easily remind the sender of your earlier request(s) and if it ever comes to a complaint you'll be able to prove that you asked the sender to stop sending advertisements.

If you prefer not to contact the sender directly you could return the junk mail to the sender. Cross out the name and address of the person who has died; write 'Return to sender, deceased' on the envelope; and put it back in the post, unstamped. Be aware, though, that junk mailers usually respond slowly to such requests - dealing with returned advertisements often isn't much of a priority for junk mailers. Also, be aware that if you return the advertisement you'll no longer have evidence that the junk mail was sent in the first place. If you really want the junk mail stopped and if you're prepared to make a complaint if necessary you should contact the sender directly and keep hold of both the mail-out and any correspondence you have with the sender.

Opt-out services

There are three opt-out services that may be useful. Your best option is to try them all.

Mailing Preference Service

You can register the details of someone who has died with the Mailing Preference Service. This should stop addressed junk mail from organisations with whom the deceased never had any dealings (the postal equivalent of cold calling). However, the Mailing Preference Service will not stop mailings from organisations that aren't members of the Direct Marketing Association. More about the limitations of the opt-out scheme can be found on the Mailing Preference Service page in this guide.

Bereavement Register and Deceased Preference Service

The Bereavement Register and Deceased Preference Service actively collect the details of people who have died. They use these details to create so-called 'suppression files' (that is, lists with the personal details of people who have died) which they sell to mail houses. Junk mailers who buy the suppression files can then remove the details of people who have died from its mailing list(s). Registering the details of a deceased relative or friend is free:

As is the case with the Mailing Preference Service, both schemes have limitations. Not all junk mailers buy deceased suppression files. Most large companies apparently do buy the lists but smaller (mostly local and regional) businesses usually don't. Charities hardly ever clean their mailing list, partly because of the expense and partly because they assume that people don't see charity junk mail as junk mail. The Bereavement Register and Deceased Preference Service estimate that they each cover about 70% of all addressed junk mail. In other words, signing up to the services may reduce junk mail by about 70% - but there are no guarantees.

It's important to be aware that the junk mail won't stop immediately. Both the Bereavement Register and the Deceased Preference Service suggest that you can expect the junk mail to stop within six weeks time but in reality it can take significantly longer. The reason is that it usually takes three to four months to organise a mail-out. Most junk mailers only check at the very start of a mailing campaign whether or not there are deceased people on its mailing list, which means that by the time a mail-shot is actually handed to Royal Mail for delivery there may be people on the list who died many months ago. Some mail houses will do a check just before the letters go in the post and pull any letters that are addressed to people who have died but most can't be bothered (it's too complicated and expensive).

Complaints

What if contacting senders directly and registering with three different opt-out service doesn't work? Is there legislation that obliges junk mailers not to send junk mail to people who have died? As per usual, the answer is not very straightforward…

The Data Protection Act 1998 states that personal data an organisation keeps needs to be relevant, accurate and up to date (amongst many others). Clearly, if you've told an organisation that a friend or relative has passed away and they continue to send advertisements addressed to that person they're not keeping data in accordance with data protection legislation. However, it can still be difficult to enforce your rights. The problem is that the Data Protection Act doesn't clearly define when an organisation fails to handle personal data properly. As I mentioned above, most junk mailers only 'clean' a mailing list at the very start of a mailing campaign. If you advised Company X of the death of a friend or relative (whether directly or via one of the three opt-out services) and you're still receiving junk mail addressed to the deceased person four months later you'll probably find that Company X hasn't breached the Data Protection Act. Company X could argue that the junk mail couldn't have been prevented (because it was received after the mailing list was 'cleaned').

If you continue to receive junk mail from an organisation you've contacted more than four months ago you should consider complaining to the Information Commissioner's Office. This is the body that enforces the Data Protection Act and they have a (usually) very helpful helpline: 0303 123 1113. More information about the Data Protection Act, your rights and lodging complaints can be found on the ICO's website:

Apart from the Information Commissioner's Office the opt-out services themselves may be able to help. If you've registered the deceased's details with the Mailing Preference Service this could be your first port of call. If you make a complaint the Mailing Preference Service will usually check if the sender is a member of the Direct Marketing Association and, if so, contact the sender about the mail-out. Ultimately, your complaint could be passed to the Advertising Standards Authority. (Which is, it should be said, a self-regulatory body with no enforcement powers).

The Bereavement Register also invites registrants to contact them if the junk mail doesn't stop. They don't have a formal complaints procedure but they'll contact the sender, even if the sender doesn't buy the company's suppression file (that is, the list with the names of people who have died). This is partly marketing (the sender may decide to purchase the suppression file after being contacted), partly a genuine attempt to help resolve the issue (being contacted by the Bereavement Register should encourage the sender to take immediate action). It should be noted, however, that the Bereavement Register can't force junk mailers to stop sending junk mail to people who have died, and that the company also can't make a complaint to the Information Commissioner's Office (whether as a Limited Company or on your behalf).

The deceased as a commodity

The Bereavement Register and Deceased Preference Service are both commercial opt-out schemes. They're doing a great job when it comes to collecting the personal details of people who have died (amongst others they work with funeral directors all over the country) but they're not very effective when it comes to preventing junk mail being sent to the deceased. The reason is that many junk mailers simply don't buy the suppression files produced by the companies.

An illustration of a grave and a letterbox stuffed with junk mail. By Eloise O'Hare, (c) 2011.
Junk mail beyond the grave.

Personally, I think it's wrong that the junk mail industry treats the personal details of people who have died as a commodity. It would be much more effective if the Data Protection Act would require organisations to screen its mailing lists against a single suppression file. Such a scheme could be managed by the Direct Marketing Association, which already runs the Mailing Preference Service and a whole bunch of other opt-out schemes, and funded by charging bulk mailers a small fee based on the volume of its mail-outs. The latter would be particularly beneficial for small companies and charities, who currently feel they can't afford to use up to date mailing lists. It would be much more comprehensive system, and failing to 'clean' mailing lists would be a breach of the Data Protection Act.

When I made the above suggestion to the Bereavement Register I got a rather agitated response. My solution would obviously limit self-regulation by the junk mail industry and prevent the company from making money by selling the personal details of people who have died. To date, though, they've not responded to my invitation to come up with arguments against running a scheme like the Bereavement Register on a not-for-profit basis.

A post scriptum on statistics and marketing

The reason for contacting the Bereavement Register was something else; I wanted to find out how they had arrived at the statistic that, on average, 80 pieces of addressed junk mail are sent to people who have died in the first twelve months following death. The figure had been quoted by the Bereavement Register since 2005. At the time 4.5 billion pieces of addressed junk mail were sent to a population of 60 million. If the average Briton got roughly 75 pieces of addressed junk mail in 2005 and the deceased got 80 the Bereavement Register must be doing a pretty shoddy job!

They admitted that the figure is a "guesstimate" and "probably too high". The statistic is based on the above figures but assumes that a disproportional amount of junk mail is sent to the elderly (who die in greater numbers than the young). Although this is a fair assumption it's unlikely that the Bereavement Register's statistic comes anywhere near being realistic. And in any case the figure is hopelessly out of date; the amount of addressed junk mail produced annually has decreased considerably since 2005.

Over their death bodies

'So what?', you may ask. And you're right. The Bereavement Register wanted to put a figure on the problem, to make both junk mailers and the general public aware that it's an important issue. That they overestimated the scale of the problem doesn't take away anything from the fact that it's a problem. What concerns me, however, is that the figure is used for marketing campaigns. The Bereavement Register / REaD Group used to regularly sent press releases to local newspapers stating how many pieces of junk mail were sent to the deceased in the area covered by the newspaper. Many papers published these press releases word by word, providing the Bereavement Register with lots of free publicity.

That would still be fine with me if the press releases simply highlighted the issue and gave people objective information about how to stop junk mail sent to the deceased. But that wasn't part of the Bereavement Register's marketing campaign! It's commercial rival, the Deceased Preference Service, was never mentioned; and companies were urged to buy the Bereavement Register suppression file. What's more, the press released also contained a tip for stopping junk mail in general. People were advised to sign up to another opt-out service run by… the REaD Group. The opt-out service in question has nothing to do with junk mail sent to the deceased and can hardly be called a 'service'; it's more or less an opt-in / opt-out variation on the free Mailing Preference Service for which you have to pay £5 per annum. I should add that the Bereavement Register told me shortly after publishing this article that it has ceased its marketing campaign. That's good news, but the fact that they adopted this marketing strategy in the first place says something about the company's integrity. As does the fact that the opt-out website that shall not be named still features a page with links to newspaper cuttings that resulted from the marketing campaign (with "Read Group" and the name of the opt-out scheme underlined by the Read Group - how cute).

Overestimating the scale of the problem is one thing, providing newspapers with false data in order to sell a commercial product is quite another. Do the ends justifies the means? Personally, I think they don't. The Bereavement Register (as well as the Deceased Preference Service, who started copying the Bereavement Register's tactics in 2008) should be concentrating on working towards a system whereby every bulk mailer has access to the suppression file, and whereby its use is obligatory. It can be done, if only the industry would be willing to stop treating the personal details of people who have died as a commodity.

Links