Bank of America won't take no for a permanent answer

Bank of America won’t take no for a permanent answer

People who opt out of receiving promotional offers from Bank of America have to restate their decision every five years. Above, mail is delivered in Pomona. (Beatrice de Gea / Los Angeles Times)

The letter Richard Knee received from Bank of America opened with a warning: "You may be missing out on valuable offers."

"According to our records, you are not being mailed offers from Bank of America because you have opted out of postal mail marketing offers," the letter said.

Happily for BofA, that's changing. It said that the preference made clear by Knee, 68, five years ago would expire this month. If he didn't opt out anew, the junk mail would start flowing again.

"Why should I have to opt out again?" the San Francisco resident asked me. "I already told them that I don't want their stuff cluttering my mailbox. The opt-out should be permanent."

It's a great point, and I agree completely. Yet BofA's marketing persistence illustrates a broader trend: Many businesses just won't take no for an answer.

"If they offered you an opt-out and you opted out, they should honor it," said Robert Gellman, a Washington, D.C., privacy consultant. "You've stated your preference."

On its website, BofA says that "you have choices when it comes to sharing certain information with affiliates and third parties and limiting direct marketing contact."

That sounds customer-friendly until you dig through the weeds and uncover the fine print: "When you opt out of direct marketing by mail or telephone, your opt out(s) will last for five years, subject to applicable law. After that, you can choose to renew your opt out(s) for another five-year period."

BofA isn't alone among banks in refusing to accept that no means no. Wells Fargo says you have to renew your mail-marketing preference every three years and your do-not-call preference every five. Many state banks have similar provisions.

Gellman said that he'd be cool with banks contacting customers every so often to ask whether they wanted to opt in to direct marketing — in other words, seeking permission to pester you with offers.

"But making opt-in the default if you do nothing is just obnoxious," he said. "They know that most people won't take action, so this is just a sneaky method to opt people back in."

Betty Riess, a BofA spokeswoman, said the bank just wants to make sure it understands what customers want.

"We update consumer preferences on direct-mail solicitations every five years because individuals' preferences may change in the interim and we want to make sure we have current information," she said.

That suggests, of course, that BofA believes its customers are too stupid or helpless to act on such matters themselves. They might change their mind and suddenly crave junk mail, but they need help to fulfill this desire.

It's also telling that BofA doesn't ask every few years whether you want to keep getting junk mail. An opt-in is for life.

Sadly, many businesses operate like this. So what can you do?

If your bank — or some other company — is repeatedly bothering you with unsolicited offers, check out its privacy policy and see what opt-out choices are available. In most cases, you'll be able to opt out online. Only the rudest of firms will make you go to the hassle of sending in a letter.

To put the kibosh on unwanted credit card and insurance offers, go to OptOutPrescreen.com. The site is operated by the top credit-reporting companies and will allow you to opt out electronically on an industrywide basis for five years. To opt out permanently, you'll need to also submit a signed form.

Another site, DMAchoice.org, run by the Direct Marketing Assn., will allow you to say "no thanks" to credit card offers, catalogs, magazine-subscription mailers and other pitches from about 3,600 companies and organizations belonging to the industry group.

There's also the federal government's do-not-call list, which is intended to stop telemarketers in their tracks. Reputable companies typically respect your preference. The bottom feeders don't. Still, it's worth registering your home number.

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