How to reduce email spam

By

The chore of unsubscribing from marketing messages can be downright annoying. We take a deep dive into what the law requires and what you can do to reduce nuisance emails and texts. 

Unwanted marketing material is one of the pain points of modern life. As retailers jostle and elbow their way into our inboxes and phones via email and text in the hope that getting our attention will elicit a purchase, many are achieving the opposite - anger rather than allegiance.

Consider this scenario: you buy a pair of shoes in a physical store, when the person ringing up your purchase asks for your email address.

how to reduce email spam

"So we can email you the receipt," he explains.

With one eye on easier filing of tax receipts or household budgeting, you then remember to check whether this also signs you up to receive marketing emails.

You are assured that no, it's solely for your receipt. You leave the store, purchase in hand, and don't give the transaction another thought... until a marketing email arrives from that very same store a week later.

Hitting the unsubscribe button to newsletters and sales emails is a chore we've all become accustomed to... 
and resent.

Spam and consent laws

The Spam Act 2003 and Spam Regulations 2021 stipulate what marketers must do before sending us emails or texts.

Under Australian law, your consent is required before someone can send you marketing texts or emails, and it must be easy for you to unsubscribe (you shouldn't have to log in).

'Consent' is not as straightforward as you might imagine, however. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), the statutory body that regulates spam in Australia, says consent can be 'inferred' or 'express'.

Express consent means you've ticked a box, filled in a form, or agreed to marketing emails over the phone or in person. Inferred consent is a little murkier.

According to the ACMA, it might be reasonable to expect that you have consented to receive marketing emails if you have a provable, ongoing relationship with a business - if you've subscribed to a service or become a member, for example.

"It does not cover sending messages after someone has just bought something from your business," says ACMA.

Consent is not required if the email sender is a registered charity, educational institution contacting you as a former or current student, government body or registered political party.

How is it regulated?

If you're getting emails you didn't consent to, or continue to get emails after you've unsubscribed, you can forward the email in question to ACMA (see 'How to beat spammers, right) to lodge a complaint. When ACMA receives a spate of complaints about a particular company, an investigation may be launched.

Consequences range from warnings to fines if the issue is found to be serious and ongoing.

ACMA issued hefty fines to several companies in 2023, including Kmart, Ticketek, DoorDash, Uber Australia, CommBank and MyCar Tyre & Auto.

Kmart had to pay a fine of $1,303,500 for sending more than 200,000 marketing emails between July 2022 and May 2023 to customers who had previously unsubscribed. A combination of technology, system and procedural failures was blamed for the breach.

ACMA chair Nerida O'Loughlin says people are getting frustrated and angry with big brands intruding on their privacy by not respecting their wishes to unsubscribe.

"When a customer decides to opt out  of a marketing mailing list, businesses are obliged to fulfil that request," she says. "The rules have been in place for nearly 20 years and there is simply no excuse."

Ticketek was fined $515,040 for sending 41,000 marketing texts and emails without the consent of recipients and around 57,000 texts and emails to people who 
had previously unsubscribed.

Uber Australia copped a fine of $412,500 for sending out marketing emails in breach of Australian spam laws. The emails were sent on a single day in January 2023 as part of an advertising campaign for an alcohol home delivery service. O'Loughlin says it is unacceptable that a company conducting high-volume marketing does not have robust systems in place.

"In this case, an avoidable error has led to more than 2 million messages being sent without a way for people to unsubscribe."

Worse still, half a million of those messages were sent to people who had previously opted out.

"Consumers are fed up with their wishes not being respected. People rightly expect to have choice over who contacts them for marketing purposes," says O'Loughlin.

She says ACMA will monitor Uber's compliance and will not hesitate to take stronger action if it doesn't comply in 
the future.

"All businesses conducting e-marketing should be actively and regularly reviewing their marketing to ensure it is compliant," she says. "We are particularly concerned about direct marketing that involves gambling, alcohol and 'buy now, pay later' products and services that may lead to significant harm for people in vulnerable circumstances."

How Australia measures up on marketing laws

Consent is required in most countries before a company can contact you for marketing purposes. Not in the US, though. As long as Americans are given the option of unsubscribing, companies can send them as much marketing material as they like.

In countries that require consent, some prohibit pre-checked boxes and other forms of passive consent (during the checkout process for an online purchase, for example). Australia, Germany, Netherlands, France and Canada are among the countries that require people to 'actively' opt in.

All countries require that marketing emails have an unsubscribe option, but the number of days a company has to act on an unsubscribe request varies.

In Germany and Italy, marketers have to process an opt-out request the same day. In Australia they have five days and in the UK they have 28 days.

What happens to companies that flaunt spam regulations?

Consequences range from a slap on the wrist to jail time. The severity of punishment depends on the nature of the violation, and whether the company in question is a repeat offender. 
In the US, serious spammers can face fines of up to $US16,000 ($23,400) per email. In Spain, they can face up to €600,000 ($973,000) per infringement.

In Italy, serious spam violators can face jail time of up to three years.

How to reduce the amount of spam you receive

It is unlikely you can completely avoid unwanted emails, calls and texts, but there are precautions you can take to cut down the numbers:

  • Enter competitions at your peril (they are often a way to gather your contact information) or use a dedicated email address for competition entries. It also allows you to track what organisations have compromised your data.
  • Untick pre-ticked boxes when you buy a product or sign up for a service. Pre-checked boxes aren't allowed in Australia, but it happens anyway.
  • Take the time to check terms and conditions. A quick scan is all it takes to make sure you're not agreeing to marketing emails.
  • Block senders of spam/scam emails and texts using your phone and email filters and settings.
  • Before you click on an unsubscribe link in an email, check the email address to make sure it's not a scam (mispelled or generic email addresses are red flags).
  • If you haven't given your consent to an email, forward it to ACMA at [email protected].
  • Register your number at donotcall.gov.au to reduce telemarketing calls.
  • Fill out a complaint form about spam emails or texts at acma.gov.au/spam-complaint-form.
  • Forward SMS spam to the ACMA on 0429 999 888.

Get stories like this in our newsletters.

Related Stories

TAGS

Joanna Tovia is a senior journalist at Money magazine. She is the former personal finance editor of The Daily Telegraph and author of Eco-Wise & Wealthy, a book about saving money by going green at home. She has worked as a journalist in the US, UK and Australia writing about money, travel, design and wellbeing. Connect with her on LinkedIn.