Contact the sender

The Data Protection Act gives you the right to ask any organisation in the UK to stop 'processing your personal information for direct marketing purposes'. It's a very effective way of stopping addressed junk mail, albeit a somewhat time-consuming one.

The basics

A data protection notice is a request to stop using your personal details for 'direct marketing purposes', made with reference to Section 11 of the Data Protection Act. It's a legally binding demand to stop (or not begin) sending you personally addressed junk mail. Organisations that ignore a data protection notice can be referred to the Information Commissioner's Office (the body enforcing the Data Protection Act).

The only downside of stopping junk mail using data protection notices is that it's a rather time consuming approach; you need to contact senders one by one, and keep track of who you've contacted and when. As a last resort, however, data protection notices are extremely useful. If you're constantly being sent junk mail by an organisation you can force them to stop.

The details

Section 11 of the Data Protection Act is better known as the 'right to prevent processing for purposes of direct marketing'. As you'd expect, it's written in proper Legalese:

An individual is entitled at any time by notice in writing to a data controller to require the data controller at the end of such period as is reasonable in the circumstances to cease, or not to begin, processing for the purposes of direct marketing personal data in respect of which he is the data subject.

In order for your notice to be legally binding it needs to comply with the above text. In particular:

  • You can only ask junk mailers to stop (or not begin) sending junk mail that's addressed to you personally. It's not possible to stop junk mail addressed to someone else; nor can you use a notice to stop those annoying 'To the Occupier' letters. Information about how to deal with junk mail addressed to previous occupiers can be found below.
  • You need to give the organisation your full name and address (how else are they supposed to stop sending you junk mail!)
  • Your notice needs to be in writing. This can be an e-mail, and I recommend you send your notice electronically. That way you'll automatically have a copy of your notice and proof of posting.
  • You need to spell out that you're asking the organisation to stop (or not to begin) processing your personal data for direct marketing purposes in accordance with Section 11 the Data Protection Act 1998.
  • Your notice needs to be dated and you need to tell the junk mailer from what date you expect them to comply with your request. A 'reasonable date' is usually 28 days from the date of your notice.

Example data protection notice

The Information Commissioner's Office suggests you write your notice as follows:

[ Your full name ]
[ Your full address ]

[ Today's date ]

Data Controller / Company Secretary
[ Organisation's full address ]

Dear Sir or Madam,

Notice under the Data Protection Act 1998 not to use my personal information for direct marketing

I, [ your full name ] of [ your full address ] require you to [ stop / not to begin ] processing personal information relating to me for direct marketing as soon as possible and in any event within 28 days of the date of this [ letter / e-mail ].

If you do not normally handle these requests for your organisation, please pass this [ letter / e-mail ] to your Data Protection Officer or the person who does.

Please note that if you do not comply with this notice, I can apply to the court for an order against you under Section 11 of the Data Protection Act.

Yours faithfully,

[ Your name ]

After you've sent your notice

It's important to keep a copy of the notice you've sent – you'll need it should the junk mailer fail to comply. Should that happen you could enfore your rights by lodging a complaint with the Information Commissioner's Office. The complaint would be that the junk mail has failed to handle your personal data in accordance with the Data Protection Act. For more information you could contact the Information Commissioner's Office on 0303 123 1113. They're usually very helpful.

Junk mail addressed to previous occupiers

Section 11 of the Data Protection Act only talks about 'personal data in respect of which you are the data subject'. This implies that you can only use the provision to stop junk mail that's addressed to you personally. Section 11 doesn't deal with junk mail addressed to anyone buy you.

If you're getting junk mail addressed to a previous occupier you can still use the Data Protection Act to force the junk mailer to cease the mailings. The fourth principle of the Act states that personal data held by a data controller (in this case: a junk mailer) must be accurate and, where necessary, kept up to date. If you notify a junk mailer that they're sending mailings addressed to someone who doesn't live at your address they are by law required to update their records and cease the mailings (within a reasonable period). Failing to comply with such a request would be a breach of the Data Protection Act.

Again, you'd need to send the junk mailer a fairly formal notice letter / e-mail. Feel free to use the following example letter:

[ Your full name ]
[ Your full address ]

[ Today's date ]

Data Controller / Company Secretary
[ Organisation's full address ]

Dear Sir or Madam,

Notice of inaccurate data

I, [ your full name ] of [ your full address ] have received 'direct mail' addressed to [ full name of the previous occupier ] at my address. [ full name of the previous occupier ] does not live at my address and I therefore require you to update your records and cease the mailings as soon as possible and in any event within 28 days of the date of this [ letter / e-mail ].

If you do not normally handle these requests for your organisation, please pass this [ letter / e-mail ] to your Data Protection Officer or the person who does.

Please note that failing to comply with this request would be a breach of the fourth principle of the Data Protection Act.

Yours faithfully,

[ Your name ]

Junk mail addressed 'To the Occcupier'

You can not use the Data Protection Act to stop junk mail addressed to a generic addressee. Names like 'To the Occupier' and 'Dear Householder' are not personal data, and the Act therefore doesn't apply.

It's worth mentioning that addressed 'To the Occupier' mailings are the only type of addressed junk mail that can't be stopped. This makes it all the more bizarre that the Mailing Preference Service makes an exemption for mail addressed to generic addressees. In effect, the Direct Marketing Association (which runs the opt-out scheme) has created a loophole that allows junk mailers to bypass all regulations.

To stop 'To the Occupier' junk mail you could try contacting the sender informally. Be aware, though, that there's every chance that they'll ignore your request. Junk mailers who exploit the 'To the Occupier' loophole do so because they aim is to 'carpet bomb' the nation. By sending mailings addressed 'To the Occupier' they don't have to buy proper mailing lists and they don't have to check their junk mail list against the Mailing Preference Service. Companies that aim to send out as much junk mail as possible for as little money as possible are unlikely to welcome opt-out requests. And… there's nothing you can do if they do indeed ignore your request.

The best way to deal with 'To the Occupier' junk mail is to return it to the sender. It's unlikely to stop the mailings but if enough people would send back unwanted mail it would almost certainly teach the offenders to be a little more considerate and a little less wasteful.

Thought for the day

Stop Junk Mail is not just about giving information on stopping junk mail. There are many things that could be done to make reducing unsolicited mail easier (as I hope this guide demonstrates) and one of the aims of this website is to highlight those things.

If you'd ask me why reducing junk mail is unnecessarily complicated my answer would: industry self-regulation. Opt-out schemes such as the Door-to-Door Opt-Out, Your Choice and the Mailing Preference Service are run by junk mailers. Consumer groups don't have a say in how they function, which is why these schemes are only half-effective.

The reason why data protection notices are effective is this: they're not part of the junk mail industry's self-regulatory framework. Instead they're covered by an Act of Parliament (the Data Protection Act). Voluntary industry schemes will always be just that; voluntary.

Last updated: 
15th June 2015