A package with all the markings of a baby gift arrived, unexpectedly, for Chicagoan Dana Bottenfield last May. The problem? It was shipped to her mother’s house, in Kansas, the week before Mother’s Day. When her mother opened the box, it contained cans of Similac baby formula.
“Mom thinks I’m pregnant and this is my way of telling her, since it’s right before Mother’s Day, that I have some sort of Mother’s Day reveal that I am planning to tell her. Which, unfortunately, I don’t,” Dana told NBC 5 Responds.
Dana says after she gently explained to her mother that she had nothing to do with the delivery, she set out to find out who did—and how her name got on a list of parents and parents-to-be.
“For me, number one--it felt like a huge privacy breach to have something like this show up at a family member’s door,” Dana said. "It is highly insensitive for people who, I mean imagine if you were going through infertility, if you had recently lost a child, if you are adamant about not having children."
Her first stop: the maker of Similac. Dana says the formula-maker sent her to a company that sells lists, which then sent her to a marketing company. The marketing company told her someone may have “maliciously” input her name and address into a parenting website—but that made little sense. After all, Dana says, the package was shipped to her mother’s address--where she hadn’t lived in more than a decade. After weeks of spinning her wheels, Dana says, she turned to NBC 5 Responds to help her get some answers.
We soon saw that Dana is not alone. NBC 5 Responds found complaints lodged online from more than 10 years ago, outlining the same situation: women who said they were not pregnant, not planning to be, and who felt the unsolicited delivery of Similac baby formula was an invasion of their privacy. Women who wrote that they felt “blindsided” by the delivery, found it “creepy” and in one case, "I have no idea how I got on their list since I am not pregnant nor do I have an infant. It felt like a bit of a slap in the face."
When we asked Abbott Labs, the maker of Similac, why Dana received the unsolicited delivery, the company apologized for causing her concern. In a statement, the company said: “We are very sorry for the situation this has caused for Dana. We immediately removed her from our list when she contacted us. We work hard to make sure that the lists we receive include people who want to receive relevant information and offers. The overwhelming majority of people we send our gift packs to enjoy them and we receive a lot of positive feedback from parents. We work with trusted third-party partners who aim to provide us with information about parents and parents-to-be who would be interested in our products or communications. We depend on them to provide us with accurate lists. When we are alerted by consumers that they are receiving unwanted mailings, we work quickly to remove them from the list.”
DePaul Professor Jacob Furst, who specializes in computer security issues, says the whole scenario “stinks” of data aggregators. Those are the companies that collect information about consumers’ every move online, then compile lists of names to sell to companies for marketing purposes.
“The whole thing just stinks of data aggregation, and I use that verb deliberately,” Furst said. “We need some kind of regulation that deals with data aggregation. There’s mounting evidence, I think, that we need federal legislation that covers privacy in general.”
The European Union is getting just that. Next year, the General Data Protection Regulation kicks in, aimed at regulating the processing of all personal data in the EU. The provision will curtail marketers’ ability to reach into consumers’ private lives. The right to privacy is widely considered a priority, and a highly developed area of law, in the EU.
Will the United States adopt similar measures? Professor Furst says that will happen only if consumers like Dana Bottenfield continue to demand answers.
“This is how things happen, especially with regard to policy. People start to question the status quo,” Furst told NBC 5 Responds. They make some noise, and public awareness rises.”