Cleaning up direct marketing – Part 2: How to spot a data cowboy

This is the second part of our series on cleaning up direct marketing. To see part 1, click here.

It's January, the decorations are coming down and we're all cleaning up after the party season. What better time to clean up direct marketing?

The ICO are sending out questionnaires to data companies to try and weed out the cowboys. Here's some help from me to weed out ones not in the "Data 1000". I wish it was 300 questionnaires so I could go around shouting "This is DATA" as a Spartan (I also don't have the abs).

So, cowboys, I know you all read my website - I track you. I also use copyright software so every now and then I send you letters to stop copying my website. You know all this though. Let's go over all the basic mistakes you make so you'll have to learn some new tricks. I will uncover your new schemes as well, that's easy, but it's about time we mixed it up a little.

Potential data buyers: feel free to cut out and keep our handy Cowboy-Spotting Field Guide. Give all the data companies who approach you a score out of 16. If they score more than 10, don't touch them with a barge pole. If they score more than 8, proceed at your own risk. If they score zero - Thank you for considering Databroker, we value your custom. I am happy to produce a more sophisticated system for the ICO should they need any help pinpointing.

As always with everything I write - please excuse tone, spelling, grammar, content, etc. - all opinions are my own, copyrighted, unchallengeable and frequently controversial. Also, please note if I use the word major or small or big etc - I understand that big doesn't equal best but I just don't have the time to be politically correct all the way through the blog. For major – see legit.

Ways to spot a data cowboy

PayPal - 2 points

Who on earth wants to be paid via PayPal? It's not eBay - or is it? Does this give an insight into the trading behaviour of the company? PayPal is cheap, it's easy, it's relatively hassle free to set up. If you were crooked and wanted to be anonymous with no face-to-face contact it would be your first port of call. I would almost respect them more if they offered Bitcoin or something different.

Credit cards - 1 points

The more sophisticated cowboys scoff at PayPal - it's Crap Data 101 and they’re a better breed of crook. Have more respect for their devious ways. To that end, they love to show little images of credit cards on their website. In their minds it says "Look at me, I'm legit. VISA trust me, you can too". In my mind I think "berks". All data companies accept credit cards. Merchant facilities are a cost that mature companies bear, I would never shout about it. It's just an obvious gimme. This leads me to a John Bonus Tip: when playing poker, strength is weakness and weakness is strength. How often this is true in business too. How many times have we heard people boast of immeasurable success only to be shut down 3 months later?

So companies that are OVERLY shouty about how good they are including advertising "credit cards taken" are showing weakness. The large companies don't shout at all. They are comfortable in their successful skins.

Downloads - 2 points

Couple of areas for this one. I know of some excellent providers who operate an instant download service, so they are excluded. The instant download of data is essentially a great way to avoid a conversation. Remember that a cowboy will go out of their way NOT to have conversations. If you are having conversations and data is available to download, it's probably okay. If not - warning.

A special warning sign is the download of Samples. Here is the cowboy pitch in paraphrase:

"Our data is so good, check it for yourself. 1m records for £399.99 and you get your upstairs windows free! Look here, just download the sample. See how perfect it is. Call it. Check. See? These 100 records are amazing. Quick grab a bargain now!"

Of course the 100 records are perfect. They are doctored. The other 999,900 that you get are a bag of the proverbial, but at that point you've already paid (via PayPal). These types of samples should not be confused with field specifications.

The “UK's BIGGEST Data Provider” – 5 points

I refer you back to the poker analogy - strength is weakness, weakness is strength. How can a company we've never heard of be the biggest in the UK? Have they not heard about some of the multi billion pound credit checking companies who supply data? They even advertise on TV. Some website with an address of a terrace in Blackburn (nothing against Blackburn – I just remember this being a real world example a couple of years ago) stating that they have all these clients and 500+ staff is complete codswallop. If they lie on their marketing, they lie to you - report them to trading standards and the ASA.

More strength is weakness:

Fake awards - Immediate 16 points

Ridiculous, I know. I remember seeing a company make up an award, design a logo for it, award it to themselves and also steal the DBM award for Outstanding Business Data Provider saying they won it in 2012. It was a one man band!

Fake address - 1 point

145-157 St John Street, London, EC1V 4PY. A personal favourite this one. How stupid do they think we are to think that idiot number 1 selling 3 million records – that are 100% accurate and opt-in for £100 – has a prestigious London address? We know it's virtual and this is one of the UK's most commonly used addresses by scammers and cowboys. See the address as Cantina, Mos Eisley Space Port, Tattooine. My advice: don't look at anyone and keep your head down.

What to do to combat the strength is weakness cowboys:

Credit check them - Pay for this service. It's cheaper than falling foul of crap suppliers. All these companies should be Ltd and therefore traceable. You will get registered address, trading address, list of directors, etc. If they credit check for £500 only, run by one director from a flat and have no financial history, incorporated less than 2 years ago - they are probably not even the biggest data company in their street. It's such an easy thing to check and you can spot them a mile off.

Check them on Linked In – If they work for the "biggest data company in the UK", that company will have a strong LinkedIn presence with many, many employees with full profiles AND PHOTOS. Only cowboys don't like their face on LinkedIn, for obvious reasons. Whilst you’re there check whether this person is qualified to speak to you and handle your budget. If they were in recruitment for 10 years, moved to data 3 months ago - don't give them your money. Would you trust a novice to fix your roof? Or a hairdresser to build your house? No. Only work with experience.

Check their terms – All Ltd companies need to disclose their registered address on their website. If you can't find it, it will be in their terms. Their terms will usually be there as this is what they rely on to scam you. E.g. - "here are our terms, we don't give refunds". Their terms will say their REAL company name. Research it. Don't work with offshore companies.

No telephone number - 3 points

No phone number, no purchase. Stick to that. Don't use a form to contact. Cowboys hate the phone.

Telephone number check - 1 point

If a telephone number is present, google it. Check it for scams, bad reviews and importantly other websites using it. There is one supplier out there who is very difficult to track, speak to and very aggressive if you do. If you google his number, you'll see all of his other websites that he uses to expand his web of duff data. He basically changes a few colours and the odd word but nothing drastic.

.Org domain - Immediate 10 points

A classic. Some cowboys are so naff they think that a .org domain gives them credence as some kind of charitable organisation.

Name and website that sounds like a major player - Immediate 16 points

I'll switch industries for this one. Let's use supermarkets as we all know and use them. Some cowboys try to dupe the gullible by pretending to be legitimate companies. So they might use the following domains: - This site will be coloured red and blue - This site will be coloured green – Orange
They still fall foul of all the other points I have raised so don't worry, easily spotted.

Grouped off-the-shelf products - 1 point

Not a gimme this one. More of a trend than a rule. Some data companies offer databases of various industries illustrated by snazzy icons that you can drag and drop into your shopping basket. This point is only really useful if used in conjunction with other cowboy tells, it's just another example of non-interaction between data company and customer - they make it all automated so they don't have to lie to you on the phone.

Prices that end in .99 - 5 points
I know.

Tired stock photography - 1 point
Again, not a gimme. Needs to be taken into account with the other tells. This just means that cowboys are rarely the most creative. They don't usually have a visual flair. In fact they copy it from others, so they're lazy. They don't have the time or capability to come up with an arresting original website design and they certainly won't pay for one. If the main gist is "UK's biggest…" AND it's got the picture of the attractive blonde lady looking into the camera wearing a headset - move on. Even if they're legit, do they look like marketing experts?!

Non DMA member - 2 points
Don't deal with anyone who is not a DMA member. Careful - don't assume that a DMA logo means that are a member. Cowboys are tricky, remember. I have seen many websites of non members pretending. Check with the DMA.

Not ICO registered - 16 points
Just as with the DMA, they should all be registered with the ICO. Check with the ICO.

Shout about being ICO registered - 2 points
Cowboys think that being ICO registered is like a kitemark. They love it. Anyone can and should be ICO registered. It's not an award! It's the law. It's like putting a HMRC logo on your website saying you are VAT registered. Wow guys, just wow. The major companies will provide their ICO registration number on their website and you can check this number in the ICO directory. They won't use it as a selling point.

ICO Directory Search

Time sensitive offers that are closing soon – 5 points

Usually these come in the form of email blasts as opposed to websites. There's one company in particular who have been at it for years. They send emails saying their company is closing and they're selling all their assets, so you can now get their data for just £499 (to the first 30 customers only)!

Of course this is all rubbish and they'll send the same email the next month with some minor changes. These people are so shoddy at being cowboys that when they edit it, they forget to change the text colour back to black so you end up with something like this:

April Offer Only - Closing down now. First 40 customers only.
Data must go for £499!

Too good to be true offers - Immediate 16 points
The most important of all: The maths. If it sounds too good, it is.

You cannot buy 1m records for £999. How could they all be good quality, opt-in and fully checked? Yes, I know the sample looks good but the phone call for the opt-in or the email or directory submission would cost way more than what they are selling it for. Way, way, way more. It costs pounds to generate an opt-in email, not 0.00001 pence.
By definition, it has to be web scraped, stolen, not opt-in or unethical in some way or another. They would have to sell thousands of these deals every day to pay for their plush London office on St Johns Street and to provide facilities for their 500 staff as the "UK's biggest provider of quality data". Can someone who doesn't credit check have the resources to create such a fantastic product?? Of course not. It costs upwards of £1m to keep a large database up to date per annum and it can be much, much more.
If you are tempted, then good luck. Your ISP will love you for using it. You are practically funding organised crime and causing distress to many. But yeah, if you can sleep at night.

Now keep your cut out handy when purchasing data or……
It's our job to know and avoid the cowboys. Buy data with confidence and we will be happy to make sure you don't have to worry about any of the above. You can ask for me. I won't hide. Look, here is a number to get me on: 0161 941 5700.