Flipping through the mail before heading to a support group for parents who have lost their children, an Illinois couple found that their OfficeMax junk mail was addressed to “Mike Seay, Daughter Killed in Car Crash," reported the LA Times.
The Seays did in fact lose their 17-year-old daughter, Ashley, in an accident last year.
But, as Seay said in his interview with the LA Times, "Why do they have that [information]? What do they need that for? How she died, when she died?...That's not something they would ever need."
An OfficeMax executive eventually apologized to Seay for the egregious data mining error, without explaining how the car crash info wound up in the address field of his mailer. And not until after Seay battled a company customer service rep who didn't believe his story.
"When I called, they basically called me a liar," Seay told the Chicago Tribune. "[A] manager basically said, 'This can't happen. There's no possible way that this happened.' It got ugly real fast."
OfficeMax issued a statement saying that the mailer that traumatized the grieving parents was “a result of a mailing list rented through a third-party provider,” according to the LA Times.
Ellen Jean Hirst reported for the Tribune:
“As in the OfficeMax situation, much of the work is done by third-party companies that collect the data and sell it to marketers, said Edward Malthouse, a professor of integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University.
Methods of collection include consumers themselves and public records.
'If you give birth in a hospital, you're going to get hit by coupons in the mail offering you diapers,' Malthouse said...
Malthouse said it's possible that a computer was programmed to look through obituaries or death records and found the information about Seay's daughter. But the mistake was likely human error.
'I can only speculate that one of these third-party companies tracked that death, and that got mis-keyed; it got merged in where it didn't belong,' he said. 'I think it's a two-edged sword. On one hand as consumers, we want the advertising we see to be relevant, because advertising that's not relevant is spam. … [But] there's a fine line between improved targeting and creepiness.'”