June 9, 2009 at 11:00 AM ET
Kevin, a 40-year-old from Sacramento, Calif., likes to keep a tidy inbox. He's very deliberate about removing himself from mailing lists and anything else that might clog up his e-mail.So recently, when he received a marketing pitch from his credit card company, Capital One, he quickly asked to be removed from its list. The response he got surprised him.
"We bring these offers to customers as part of our customer agreement and therefore do not provide a means to prevent this valuable information from reaching them," the firm responded.
In other words: "No."
Kevin, who requested that we withhold his last name for privacy reasons, was surprised and disappointed by the rejection.
"They seem to be reserving the right to waste money by annoying me ... while my feelings about opting out make clear that I am not a valuable target of their marketing," he said.
Because Capital One has an established business relationship with Kevin, it has the right to contact him via e-mail under the terms of the CAN-SPAM Act.
And the e-mail Kevin received wasn't a marketing notice, but rather "account management communication," the firm says. That's why Kevin can’t remove himself from the list for future e-mails.
"Customers can opt out of marketing e-mails ... but cannot opt out of account management communications, such as statement notifications, rewards information," and similar notices, said Capital One spokeswoman Pam Girardo. "This is stated in the privacy notice sent to all customers annually."
Few would argue that credit card firms have the right to e-mail account statements or other notices to customers.But the e-mail to which Kevin objected strains the definition of "account communications."
The e-mail offered Kevin a chance to transfer balances to his Capital One card at a teaser rate of zero percent for 12 months.At the bottom of the e-mail, the firm stakes its claim that the notice isn't spam.
"This e-mail was sent to (you) and contains information directly related to your account with us," it says.
When asked to clarify the company's position, Girardo said the balance transfer notice was a service "directly related to his account."Notices about rewards offers would also be permitted, she argued, because they involve "a key feature of a credit card." Customer like Kevin wouldn't receive offers from other Capital One units, such as the auto finance business, however.
Clearly, one person's account communication is another's unwanted marketing pitch.
'When my back is turned..."
Kevin also objected to Capital One's snail mail marketing and received a similar rejection letter -- and more of those "convenience checks" designed to entice balance transfers. Many credit card consumers have trouble warding off those checks, which are notorious tools for identity thieves.It's relatively easy for criminals to steal them and cash them, leaving the account holder to explain their way out of the fraudulent charges.
In fact, from a personal security standpoint, e-mail balance transfer pitches are probably much safer than snail mail convenience checks. On the other hand, given the continued prevalence of phishing spam, e-mail pitches from banks create their own problems.It's not hard for a criminal to imitate the Capital One pitch Kevin received and link the e-mail to a rogue site that steals personal information.
Capital One is hardly alone in e-mailing balance transfer pitches and other offers to credit card customers. The Web site NetBanker.com, which covers the online banking industry, has examples of such pitches dating back to 2005.
"I can see both sides," said Jim Bruene, NetBanker editor and founder. "But balance transfer offers are clearly marketing, so I would think it would be Cap One’s best interest to allow customers to opt out of just that. Some people get pretty upset about what they perceive as spam."
That was Kevin' reaction.His main reason for maintaining his Capital One card was that the firm doesn't charge foreign transaction fees.But he's already found an alternative and is dumping Capital One.
"It's not the time it takes to delete the spam or shred the checks, which is minimal,” he said. “It's that I make my life simple by dealing with companies that I trust to look out for my interests when my back is turned. While this is a little decision on Capital One's part, it does indicate how they think about me as a customer."