Unsubscribe me, dammit!
February 15, 2010 11:13 AM   Subscribe

Do high-profile companies purposefully break their unsubscribe options? I'm not looking for help with spam. I'm (a) wondering if these companies are scamming and (b) wondering if there's anything I can do about it if they are -- not in terms of stopping the scam from affecting me, but rather in terms of getting the scammers in trouble.

Cynics will say "of course big companies do this," but I'm looking for evidence that's a little more concrete, e.g. a response from someone who worked in the IT department of a company that has done this or an expose by a journalist.

Here's why this question occurred to me: after a couple of years of letting them build up, I've started unsubscribing from all the mailing lists I'm on. I don't bother going through old emails, but as-soon-as a new one comes in, I click "unsubscribe" and fill out whatever form I get to.

(I don't do this with forms for companies I've never heard of. I'm not that dumb. I just do it with major companies that I did business with -- companies I ordered from and forgot to uncheck the "can we send you email" option.)

This morning, I tried to unsubscribe from FreshDirect. The link in the email took me to a form. When I clicked the form's submit button, I got a "the page you're looking for does not exist" error.

This has happened to me at least six times recently, all with companies as legitimate and high-profile as FreshDirect. It's starting to seem less and less likely to me that this is a coincidence.

So what gives? Does the CEO say to the IT Department, "Please break the unsubscribe form"?

Whenever I get a page-not-found error or whatever, I contact the company directly by phone or email and ask to be removed from their list. This usually works, but I'm betting plenty of other people don't bother. It's a pain to have to send an email or make a phone call. So I see the incentive for not fixing the form.

And if some official complains, they can say, "Oh my! Thank you so much! We had no idea our form was broken. We'll fix it immediately."

If I'm right -- if this is purposeful -- is there anything I can do beyond just getting off the email list? I feel like I should report this to someone. Who?
posted by grumblebee to Computers & Internet (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I imagine it's more that it's not that important to the company to keep that link functioning (which is sorta scammy but in a less "intentional" way).
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 11:32 AM on February 15, 2010

Response by poster: Sounds like you're reading into this too much. Sometimes a broken link is just a broken link.

I am very prepared to accept this.

But my suspicion stems from the facts that (a) this has happened with about a third of the companies and (b) these are web-based companies that seem to have pretty on-the ball IT departments. I don't recall every looking for apples on FreshDirect and getting an error.

If I am just being paranoid, I assume that means that it's rare for people to unsubscribe and complain when it doesn't work.
posted by grumblebee at 11:36 AM on February 15, 2010

I know absolutely nothing about this stuff so I'm eagerly anticipating someone who knows about computers coming in to tell me that this could not be the case, but is it possible that this is something related to NoScript or a similar Firefox extension or anything?
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 11:39 AM on February 15, 2010

I've worked at several companies with mailing lists, and none of them would ever contemplate deliberately breaking the link. It generates much more ill-will than it would be worth, and getting blacklisted by ISPs is a tremendous pain (and expense.)
posted by restless_nomad at 11:40 AM on February 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

It could be that the IT guys simply forget to update the link. My husband's company recently got into some trouble for leaving out a way to unsubscribe when sending out "spam" to their mailing list subscribers. It was a simple oversight from one of their advertising employees. So it's more likely this happens due to lack of knowledge of the law or plain forgetfulness.

A law was past which requires you to include a way to unsubscribe or you'll be fined up to $11,000 per violation.
posted by Sufi at 11:47 AM on February 15, 2010

Response by poster: Another data point. The FreshDirect experience happened this morning. Two days ago, the same thing happened with a similar (in terms of being high-profile and web-based) company -- I forget which.

Just now, I got an email from Dice.com, which is a popular job-hunting site. I clicked unsubscribe, got to their form, clicked the submit button, and.... "The page you are looking for cannot be found."
posted by grumblebee at 11:55 AM on February 15, 2010

Based on this, I would say yes.

NY Attorney General Investigates 'Deceptive' Online Retailers

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is investigating 22 popular online retailers for allegedly tricking customers into signing up for third-party membership programs that charge them hidden fees. He says shoppers who use such popular sites as Barnes and Noble and Orbitz, are unwittingly signed up for the programs through web marketing companies Affinion, Ventrue and Webloyalty. He says the links automatically sign the user up for membership services without their permission, and charge a monthly fee to their credit card.

In simple terms, you know how, after you buy something on a site, a little popup appears offering you a 'special offer.' Well if you click on it, the site you bought something on will transmit - unbeknownst to you - your credit card details (which you just used to buy something) to this 3rd party company, so they can put you into a recurring billing system.

I'm an "IT Guy" and I had to train my office on good, legal, email practices. Really the only thing that pushes companies to follow good email practices is their emails not being delivered because lots & lots of users report their emails as spam & the spam companies start telling companies (like AOL) to block them.
posted by MesoFilter at 12:11 PM on February 15, 2010

Response by poster: is it possible that this is something related to NoScript or a similar Firefox extension or anything?

Doubtful. It's happened at both home and work, and it more than one browser. I don't use the NoScript plugin or anything like it. And most forms work fine for me.
posted by grumblebee at 12:18 PM on February 15, 2010

Response by poster: Speaking of Barnes & Noble, I just got an email from them and hit unsubscribe:

The page cannot be found
The page you are looking for might have been removed, had its name changed, or is temporarily unavailable.

Please try the following:

* If you typed the page address in the Address bar, make sure that it is spelled correctly.
* Open the preferencecenter.opt-in-mail.net home page, and then look for links to the information you want.
* Click the Back button to try another link.

HTTP 404 - File not found
Internet Information Services

Technical Information (for support personnel)

* More information:
Microsoft Support
posted by grumblebee at 12:22 PM on February 15, 2010

The several large retailers that I worked for outsourced their email campaign mailings. Those outsourced companies also managed the unsubscribe lists. They sometimes did not coordinate the unsubscribe page with the campaign email, and links would break. It was not nefarious for the companies I worked for. So, that's just two data points on the side of it being inadvertent.

That being said, I have noticed that emails from high-profile companies are making it harder to find the opt-out list these days.
posted by qwip at 1:10 PM on February 15, 2010

I work at a medium sized company that sends out mass mailings to people who have opted in to be e-mailed. The company takes electronic standards/laws very seriously and people who are unable to unsubscribe (almost always because of a problem on their side), are removed from the list by hand upon request.

I work for a much smaller company than Barnes & Noble, but we test our unsubscribe links often. Sometimes there's an oversight on our part and we make the correction immediately.

However, I imagine very few people complain when the link is broken and at larger companies the complaint might go unnoticed. For instance, a mailing of ours once went out accidentally without the proper unsubscribe link and no one complained.
posted by parakeetdog at 1:12 PM on February 15, 2010

Part of my job involves things like this for large companies. No one has ever come to me and said, "Hey, let's break the unsubscribe link." It actually creates more problems, because if unsubscribe doesn't work, your next step is usually to mark it as spam. A reputable company getting blacklisted is a big deal - and it's a pain in the ass to get back to being white listed. So I wouldn't say that it's being done on purpose, but I will say that not a lot of attention is paid to the unsubscribe link by companies. It usually never changes, but the content does, so most of their efforts goes into the meat of mailing and that info just kind of gets glossed over. So no, it's probably not on purpose, but I can tell you that not a whole lot of information is paid attention to those links.

You might try logging into your account with these companies. If the site uses an account feature you may have to log onto the site and specify which mailings (if any) you want to receive.
To be removed from future FreshDirect e-mail campaigns ("opt out" request) you can simply access and update your information in the Your Account area on our Site, or notify us at service@freshdirect.com.
posted by sephira at 1:14 PM on February 15, 2010

I've worked for a few online retailers and currently work for a company that provides a means for organizations to email a mailing list. At my current job, it is a requirement of our service that every email sent has an unsubscribe link.

At my previous jobs, we also always had an unsub link in all our emails, but often it would go undetected if it was malfunctioning. It's not that it's intentionally misleading, but it's often just not a priority.
posted by CharlesV42 at 1:21 PM on February 15, 2010

A couple questions here...

What email client are you using? I'm wondering if it does something wonky to the URL when you click it and you might be getting a broken URL. If you are knowledgeable about URL structures, take a look and see if it appears there is anything missing.

It is entirely possible that the unsubscribe pages are down for all of these sites but (IANAL) I think this might be a violation of CAN-SPAM as they need to have a valid unsubscribe option.

Have you considered contacting customer support at any of these companies to ask about this? I'd suggest reporting your findings to Consumerist.com and once it gets on there the companies in question should be pretty quick to issue a formal response.

The thing MesoFilter posted about is completely unrelated. That is concerning credit card sharing where they sign you up for programs when you make a transaction that basically do nothing except bill your credit card every month. These are indeed scammy but different from what you are describing.

Now, some companies may indeed make it intentionally burdensome to unsubscribe from their actual service but that is typically different from email unsubscribes which are almost always fully automated. For example, ever wonder why you get connected to someone immediately when you select Sales but it can take upwards of an hour to reach someone if you want to cancel service? I'm sure its partially because they see Sales as adding to the bottom line and hire sufficiently for it but I'm sure someone has run the numbers and said "hey, if people have to wait on the phone forever, it makes them less likely to cancel!"
posted by Elminster24 at 1:28 PM on February 15, 2010

Also, seconding what sephira said about the blacklisting thing--it is a very big deal. If you can't get unsubscribed with their link, just spam it. It solves your problem and if they get enough of them they will fix things quickly enough or else face the consequences.
posted by Elminster24 at 1:30 PM on February 15, 2010

Response by poster: What email client are you using? I'm wondering if it does something wonky to the URL when you click it and you might be getting a broken URL.

posted by grumblebee at 1:32 PM on February 15, 2010

Response by poster: When I email these companies, telling them that their unsubscribe function is broken and asking to be removed from the list, I almost always a reply that thanks me for pointing out the bug to them.

So I think I'm going to resubscribe to all these lists in a month, and then unsubscribe again. That should give them plenty of time to fix the bug. I'm assuming that since I have alerted them, and since they have acknowledged that I've alerted them, the next time I go through the process, it should work perfectly.
posted by grumblebee at 1:36 PM on February 15, 2010

If the URL itself appears in the email, I often find that Gmail's URLifier breaks otherwise working links by including a closing parenthesis in the URL that was actually punctuation in the original email. I frequently have to check the URL for unsubbing and remove trailing punctuation to get the page. It's usually pretty obvious when this might be the case if you look at the link you're clicking.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:43 PM on February 15, 2010

echoing restless nomad and MesoFilter here, that offering a working, simple, unsubscribe link is not only morally/legally required, but but it also makes good business sense. Getting flagged as spam can affect deliverability to all their prospects, with messages landing in people's junk filters or not arriving at all. Disregarding your prospective customer's preferences is just not good practice. These companies r doin it wrong.

So by all means continue to call (you deserve big thanks for taking the trouble btw), and definitely flag future messages from these companies as spam. I'm also watching this thread to find out if there are other mechanisms to hold these companies accountable.

This is something of a tangent to your question, but potentially useful if your address is being shared: You can customize your gmail address. I find it useful for tracking who's sharing my address with whom. If your email is grumblebee@gmail.com, and you're giving your email to freshdirect, submit it as grumblebee+freshdirect@gmail.com - emails to that address will come into your regular inbox and you'll be able to track where they originated.
posted by Joad at 1:52 PM on February 15, 2010

I worked for a company that sold mailing list management software for mailing lists such as these. Many many companies, even very large ones, outsource their email marketing software to companies like ours, either through hosting or through buying software. They often do not understand our software that well, and many of them accidentally do things that make unsubscribing not work without meaning to. Some of them, of course, appear to do it on purpose and we got a lot of phone calls from customers complaining about errors and bugs that we could trace back to them having disabled features such as complaint forms and unsubscription.

I'd assume incompetence before I'd assume wrongdoing, although certainly there may be some companies, even fairly large ones, who are bypassing unsubscribes.
posted by RustyBrooks at 6:07 PM on February 15, 2010

It simply isn't worth it to refuse to unsubscribe people. They just get mad the next time you email them. REALLY REALLY mad. Ask me how I know. They sure as hell aren't going to buy something from you, and you could easily be sued/prosecuted, so why risk it?

I used to field these, at a company I worked for. The most common causes for unsubscribes that didn't:

* Person using throwaway email addresses may have unsubscribed address A but not address B. Address B is forwarded to address A. So our "spam" seemed to keep coming.

* Person thought they unsubscribed, but didn't. On our system, just clicking the unsubscribe link wouldn't magically do it. You then had to click "Yes I really do want to unsubscribe." People would click the unsubscribe link and then immediately stop reading.

* Person clicked through to unsubscribe page, and then clicked to unsubscribe, but some mysterious technical problem happened that prevented the transaction from finalizing.

This always struck me as a "check's in the mail" kind of thing, particularly since whenever I went to test it, it worked fine. But as you say it happened when you tried to unsubscribe from FreshDirect, so hey.
posted by ErikaB at 8:08 PM on February 15, 2010

Weird -- I have exactly the same problem with my (huge) electricity provider in the Netherlands. So if companies really do shady stuff like this, it seems to be international!
posted by transporter accident amy at 11:38 PM on February 15, 2010

Response by poster: The plot thickens!

What should I do?

posted by grumblebee at 11:40 AM on February 16, 2010

Response by poster: Here's the link as a link.

posted by grumblebee at 11:40 AM on February 16, 2010

Honestly? Send it to Consumerist.com. It will be seen by millions and you can bet your ass that someone from the company will respond. I've gotten stuff posted on there before and I get contacted right away by the companies in question.

This will be a good way to get a public statement out of them regarding this.

I would also look up CAN-SPAM compliancy on the FTC site. You should definitely report them and while you won't get any money for it (it goes to the FTC), they are pretty vigilant about going after this sort of thing and if there is malicious intent in play, its possible someone could end up in jail.
posted by Elminster24 at 9:48 PM on February 16, 2010

My sense is that that's an outgoing customer survey and you probably won't actually get any more email from them.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:15 AM on February 17, 2010

Are you absolutely sure it isn't your browser? I went to the unsub link you listed on your site and it worked for me, I unsubscribed you.
posted by sephira at 10:00 AM on February 17, 2010

Response by poster: Interesting. I just tried it again (in the same browser), and it worked for me, too. So they fixed it. Previously, I had tried it in several browsers.
posted by grumblebee at 6:58 PM on February 18, 2010

Re. "The plot thickens": in my experience many of these big companies queue up their mass emails a couple weeks in advance, so the fact that a customer service agent told you that you were unsubscribed on the 15th, and then you got another mass email on the 16th, does not in itself indicate that they did not unsubscribe you.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:58 PM on February 18, 2010

@Joad : If your email is grumblebee@gmail.com, and you're giving your email to freshdirect, submit it as grumblebee+freshdirect@gmail.com - emails to that address will come into your regular inbox and you'll be able to track where they originated.

It's worth noting that a lot of not-very-competent people set up their address-validation scripts to reject '+' as an invalid character for an email address to have, so while a nice thought, it won't always work when it should. (It also becomes somewhat of a pain in the ass when you want to unsubscribe, unless you're willing to just set up a filter to killfile all mail to that address.)
posted by FlyingMonkey at 11:56 AM on February 22, 2010

I know you're looking for proof, but I have none. I can only guess that the pages, you've experienced this from, were just poorly made or using a bad hosting company.

The big marketers often use AWeber or GetResponse, and I know that the latter actually recommends putting the "unsubscribe me" link at the top of the email. Nobody wants subscribers who don't want to stay on your list. Aweber demands that you have an unsubscribe link in your email. You cannot avoid it, and of course, their unsubscribe page works perfectly.
posted by foxladi at 5:10 PM on October 25, 2010

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