Irritation Unfairness Deception and Fraud

Direct marketing excesses sometimes annoy or offend consumers. Most of us dislike direct-response TV commercials that are too loud, too long, and too insistent. Our mailboxes fill up with unwanted junk mail, our e-mailboxes bulge with unwanted spam, and our computer screens flash with unwanted banner or pop-under ads.

Beyond irritating consumers, some direct marketers have been accused of taking unfair advantage of impulsive or less-sophisticated buyers. TV shopping channels and program-long "infomercials" targeting television-addicted shoppers seem to be the worst culprits. They feature smooth-talking hosts, elaborately staged demonstrations, claims of drastic price reductions, "while they last" time limitations, and unequaled ease of purchase to inflame buyers who have low sales resistance.

Worse yet, so-called heat merchants design mailers and write copy intended to mislead buyers. Even well-known direct mailers have been accused of deceiving consumers. A few years back, sweepstakes promoter Publishers Clearing House paid $52 million to settle accusations that its high-pressure mailings confused or misled consumers, especially the elderly, into believing that they had won prizes or would win if they bought the company's magazines.64

Fraudulent schemes, such as investment scams or phony collections for charity, have also multiplied in recent years. Internet fraud, including identity theft and financial scams, has become a serious problem. A Last year alone, the U.S. Federal Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received more than 90,000 complaints related to Internet fraud involving monetary loss, with a total dollar loss of $239 million.65

One common form of Internet fraud is phishing, a type of identity theft that uses deceptive e-mails and fraudulent Web sites to fool users into divulging their personal data. According to e-mail security firm MessageLabs, 1 in 87 e-mails is now tagged as a phishing scam, compared with 1 in 500 a year ago. Although many consumers are now aware of such schemes, phishing can be extremely costly to those caught in the net. It also damages the brand identities of legitimate online marketers who have worked to build user confidence in Web and e-mail transactions.66

Many consumers also worry about online security. They fear that unscrupulous snoopers will eavesdrop on their online transactions,

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