60 second guide to protecting your privacyHow to protect your privacy and avoid marketing

27 September 2011

Protect yourself from online marketing

Shopping online doesn't have to mean you will receive e-marketing.

Protecting your privacy is more important than ever - as more of us use online facilities to search for and buy products and services. 

Just last week the Information Commissioner's Office unveiled a dedicated web portal with guidance for businesses on how to treat customers' personal details in relation to electronic privacy law. But what about consumers? Here Which? tackles some of the most important issues surrounding privacy and marketing when you visit a provider's website.

Why does privacy matter?

Information is big business. If a stranger knows your name and address or email address, they can target you with junk mail. Keeping your details private limits your contact with companies you don't want to build a relationship with via spam, and means you have more control over who can access your information. 

Aren't there laws in place to protect privacy?

The Data Protection Act governs the way companies can treat your personal information - including who can see and use it. Likewise, the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations control how firms can use your data. These regulations set down when and how a company can send you electronic marketing material, such as emails and phone texts.

How can you avoid marketing from companies I visit?

When you complete an online form, such as for a car insurance quote or to buy goods online, you may automatically receive marketing from the company you are engaging with, unless you opt out. You can usually do this by clicking a tick box (which may or may not be pre-filled) or sending an 'unsubscribe' email. If you have missed the references to their marketing policy, or not opened the privacy policy - where many companies bury this information - you can unsubscribe from any subsequent via a link at the bottom of the message.

What about marketing from other companies?

Many sites will look to sell your data to other companies. However, they must obtain your active consent to do so. This means that they must offer you a means to opt in to this third-party marketing and cannot automatically sell your details to other firms on for marketing purposes. 

Providers tend to use clever wording to describe companies they will sell your details on to, these include describing them as 'selected partners' or 'third-party companies'. Always take care to read the paragraphs describing how to avoid marketing, as to opt out of marketing you may have to untick a box, while to avoid third-party marketing you may need to leave another box ticked - there is no uniform approach to opt-outs. 

How can I find out what information a company holds on me?

You can lodge a Subject Access Request under the Data Protection Act to force a company to disclose what information they have on you, and which companies they have passed your details on to. It can cost between £10 and £40 a time, making it all the more important to avoid giving companies consent to market to you in the first place. You can also ask the company to stop sending you marketing when you lodge a Subject Access Request. 

How else can I get off marketing lists?

There are several ways to avoid marketing. Going ex-directory will ensure it is harder for marketing companies to get hold of your phone number. Asking your local government authority to remove you from the edited electoral roll is another. This will not mean that you are prevented from voting or won't receive important official communications from your council as you won't be removed from the full electoral register. It simply means you are taken off a list that marketers use to get up-to-date names and addresses.   

You can also sign up to the Mail Preference Service and the Telephone Preference Service if you want to stop receiving sales calls or targeted advertising through the post. 

For more 

  • Privacy and your rights - view our guide to all things privacy related
  • Price comparison sites - protecting your privacy when using comparison sites
  • Data Protection Act - your rights and how to use them.