I Gave Mattel My Email Address to Keep My Child Safe. They Used It to Send Me Spam.

By Kashmir Hill on at

Once I became a parent, I noticed for the first time that the products I was buying came with pre-addressed postcards. These postcards ask you to send in your contact information, so you can be informed if the product you bought is later deemed unsafe and recalled, so you don’t, for example, get killed by a whipped cream canister.

Maybe all products come with these postcards. I don’t know. I only started noticing them after purchasing products for my new baby. Babies, after all, are basically suicidal and the first year of your life as a new parent is spent “baby-proofing your home,” which means trying to keep them from finding weird ways to off themselves.

Almost every big-ticket item you buy for the child—a high chair, a swing, a stroller, a car seat—will come with horrible warnings about the ghastly ways the child could use it. And for the first time in my decades of consumerism, I worried about the possibility of a recall, as I dimly remembered with a shudder a headline spotted years ago about strollers recalled because they dismembered children. The Grimm Brothers have nothing on the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

So even though I hate giving companies my email address, I have dutifully filled out these postcards for every item I’ve bought. And I gave them my real email address, not the junky Hotmail one I usually give to stores to try to protect my precious inbox. (There was also the option to sign up for recall alerts online, but the postcards, for whatever reason, seemed easier.)

There is a non-anachronistic way to sign up for recall alerts.

If giving out your email address also stresses you out, there’s a trick to keep track of what a company does with it. If you use Gmail, you can add an identifying word or phrase to your usual Gmail address, with a “+” sign in front of it. So if your address is “DontBotherMe@gmail.com,” and you’re sending it off to BabyCorp, Inc., give them the address “DontBotherMe+BabyCorp@gmail.com.” Messages will get to you as usual, but if you check the “to” line on them, you’ll see “+BabyCorp” in there and know they used that address.

This seemed overly suspicious with the baby product registrations since the postcards all specified “product registration for safety alert or recall only.” But then shortly after I mailed a postcard for alerts about the Fisher-Price Comfy Cloud Cradle n’ Swing, I started getting marketing emails about Fisher-Price products.

The emails were all sent to the address I had sent in on the safety postcard.

I reached out to Mattel, Fisher-Price’s parent company, about why they were spamming people who had signed up for “SAFETY ALERT OR RECALL ONLY.” Mattel spokesperson Amber Pietrobono told me by email that I shouldn’t have received the marketing messages.

“Consumers who enter our database through product registrations are supposed to be excluded from our email marketing campaigns unless they’ve opted in or entered our database in some way unrelated to product registration,” Pietrobono wrote. “However, as you pointed out, we did send you one Memorial Day promotion email because of a human error.”

Actually, they had sent me eight promotional emails over the course of the month, but who’s counting?

I asked how exactly the human error had happened, and whether it affected other consumers.

“We determined that your information was included in a batch of records that was mistakenly flagged to receive email marketing. These records were identified, and email marketing for all affected consumer records has been turned off,” Pietrobono wrote. “We have already put in place a process to prevent a recurrence of this issue in the near term and are reviewing our systems and processes to implement systematic controls against a recurrence in the future. Mattel takes privacy seriously, and we appreciate you raising this issue and providing us the opportunity to improve.”

Good news, then, for the very few people in the world who actually fill out those postcards and who have bought products from Mattel; you should not be spammed again.

You’re welcome.

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