The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has fined London-based software consultancy Studios MG Ltd a £ 40,000 fine after sending 9,000 emails containing illegal spam marketing during the first Covid-19 outbreak in April in which face masks were sold.
The ICO’s investigation found that Studios MG was not involved in the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), but that at the height of the initial panic over Covid-19, its only director – named Malcolm Graham at Companies House – was responsible for the purchase a stock of face masks that can be resold at a profit had decided. Graham is a serial tech entrepreneur who was once featured in the London Evening Standard. He is affiliated with numerous other companies, including the startup Aceify, a tennis coaching app.
Andy Curry, ICO lead investigator, said: “The ICO investigated a number of companies during the pandemic to protect people from exploitation through unlawful marketing attempts. Harassing emails are never welcome, especially when people are feeling vulnerable or concerned and their concerns are growing.
“We followed up on this case because the company broke the law and tampered with people’s privacy. We will take action if we find systematic violations of the law and evidence of companies trying to make money from people through annoying marketing. “
The ICO said that after contacting Studios MG, the company deleted a database of critical evidence showing the full scope of the emails sent. The company’s mailing list included a contact list drawn from a variety of sources including LinkedIn and email contacts.
Studios MG was unable to demonstrate to the ICO that it had obtained permission from any of the contacts on its list or an account for the period covering the activity. This is a criminal offense under the Data Protection and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR) 2003, which covers people’s privacy rights related to marketing calls, emails, texts and faxes, browser cookies, the security of communication services, and customer data such as location , Settlement, etc. The maximum fine the ICO can collect under the PECR is £ 500,000.
Spam and scam emails like those sent by Studios MG were among a number of cybersecurity threats highlighted during the first Covid-19 outbreak when malicious actors attempted to exploit widespread public fears about the virus .
Face masks, like the ones Studios MG tried to profit from, were among a number of items hoarded by unscrupulous profiteers and sold at grossly inflated prices, often using services such as Amazon Marketplace and eBay.
In March, the Competition and Market Authority (CMA) launched a Covid-19 task force to address the problem of online retailers exploiting the coronavirus.
An investigation by the consumer protection group Which? found that online platforms were struggling to cope with the sheer volume of profiting.
Which? Found hundreds of active listings and auctions for overpriced items. This included a thermometer for £ 40 priced at £ 300 on eBay and £ 150 on Amazon, a bottle of disinfectant for £ 3 for £ 29.99, and a bundle of three bottles of Dettol and three packets of antibacterial wipes for £ 210 on eBay.