Should hotels be permitted to send you unwanted advertisements?

After Mark Stechbart’s recent stay at a Wyndham hotel, he received an email with the subject line “Stay 2 nights, save 20%.” The email was a spam advertisement from Howard Johnson’s, a brand of Wyndham Hotel Group. It contained a link to unsubscribe from future emails, but the link was in a tiny font, buried in paragraphs of legalese at the bottom of the email and easily missed. More emails from Wyndham brands followed.

Stechbart was annoyed. He had never opted in to receive commercial solicitations from Wyndham following his stay at the hotel. He forwarded the original email to our advocates and asked us two questions: Were these emails legal? And how could he get them to stop?

“Among many internet annoyances is spam off hotel website signups,” Stechbart complains. “They rarely have clear opt-out buttons.”

Commercial emails and messages are regulated in the U.S. at the federal level by the CAN SPAM Act.

The Act does not prohibit commercial solicitation altogether, but it requires advertisers to abide by the following:

  • All solicitations must clearly indicate their senders’ identities and routing information, including the originating domain name and email address.
  • Subject lines must accurately reflect the message’s content.
  • The message must clearly and conspicuously disclose that it is an advertisement. This information must not be buried in fine print.
  • The message must include the sender’s valid physical postal address, which can be a post office box or private mailbox.
  • The message must include a clear and conspicuous mechanism, such as a URL hyperlink or email address, that allows recipients to request to be removed from all future commercial messages.
  • Advertisers have 10 business days to honor opt-out requests, and any opt-out mechanism included in a message must be able to process opt-out requests for at least 30 days after the message is sent. Advertisers are prohibited from charging fees, requiring additional contact information, or making recipients take any additional steps beyond sending one email or visiting a single web page as conditions for honoring opt-out requests.
  • Advertisers may not allow third parties to violate the law while performing advertising and marketing services for them.
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Violations of the law are subject to penalties of up to $40,654, which can be levied against more than one person in connection with a specific violation. The law also deems certain acts to be criminal offenses, including using someone else’s computer, open relays or open proxies to send spam without the owner’s permission, registering for multiple email accounts or domain names using false information, misleading others about the origins of messages by relaying or retransmitting multiple spam messages through a computer, and harvesting email addresses or sending emails to email addresses consisting of random letters and numbers in the hope of reaching valid ones (aka a “dictionary attack”). However, the Act does not require that all recipients of a commercial message have “opted in” prior to the sending of the message.

The email Stechbart received from Howard Johnson’s may be in violation of the CAN SPAM Act since the unsubscribe link was not “clear and conspicuous.”

Wyndham’s privacy notice provides that

We use personal information for the following purposes:
…To send you marketing communications that we believe may be of interest to you via postal mail, email, telephone or SMS.

Marketing: We may contact you by email, telephone, SMS or postal mail with information about products or services offered by Wyndham or a third party that may be of interest to you. You can opt-out at any time by doing the following:

If you do not wish to receive further commercial emails from us, you can opt-out by using the unsubscribe function in the email you receive from us.

Since Stechbart apparently didn’t find the unsubscribe link in his email, he used our company contacts for Wyndham to contact Daniel Olson, senior director of customer experience, and Robert Loewen, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Wyndham, requesting that he not receive any marketing emails from Wyndham in the future.

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We don’t endorse the tone of Stechbart’s message to Olson and Loewen, which contained impolite language and a threat to “complain to all travel writers in California” if Wyndham sent Stechbart any further emails. As we’ve noted elsewhere, this is not an appropriate way to ask for help.

Despite the tone of Stechbart’s message, Olson responded, apologizing to Stechbart and assuring him that he has asked Wyndham’s email team to confirm that Stechbart’s email address is removed from Wyndham’s marketing lists.

While we congratulate Stechbart on his successful self-advocacy efforts (his tone notwithstanding), we also ask whether the CAN SPAM Act goes far enough in that it didn’t stop a business from sending a commercial message to a customer who didn’t opt in and didn’t place the unsubscribe link in the message where he could easily find it.

Should companies be legally prohibited from sending commercial solicitations to recipients who do not opt in to receive them?

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Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

  • Mel65

    1. Do a word search in unwanted emails for “Unsubscribe”.
    2. Create an email filter for emails containing the word “Unsubscribe” in the body of the Email. This should filter out the ones your provider doesn’t catch.

    Also mark the first unwanted email as Spam and you shouldn’t see anymore.

  • finance_tony

    Opt-in would be my happy place but it will never happen.

    A big pet peeve is when the “unsubscribe” link doesn’t immediately unsubscribe you and makes you jump through an additional hoop. For example, you arrive at a page and have to re-type your email address that you just came from, or choose a “why” before you are actually unsubscribed.

  • DReid

    What I would love to stop is all the “follow up” e-mails asking or begging for reviews of your stay! I am bombarded with multiple e-mails from hotels and OTAs for these reviews. Add this to all the review requests when buying items online and it’s really out of control. Really, it makes me want to give them a bad review just because they won’t stop at sending just 1 request (which I have ignored).

    I spent the month of March in a different hotel/b&b/inn almost every night and I got so many e-mails post stay, it nearly made my head spin!

  • AJPeabody

    If too many emails from a source are marked as spam, the ISP’s or anti-spam software provider’s automatic spam filters can start sending those emails directly to spam folders. So, if I want to unsubscribe and the method is not clear or is cumbersome or doesn’t work, I have no qualms about flagging future emails from that source as spam. That protects me, and if enough others do that, the company will mend its ways or suffer the living death of the Spam folder.

  • Jeff W.

    It is really so much easier to add the sender to your you spam folder / block list. Because when you click on the “Unsubscribe” button, you are validating your e-mail address to the spammer. And it is sometimes a challenge to identify the real messages from the fake ones.

    Spam messages, while annoying, are not quite the annoyance as telephone calls. At least e-mails I can deal with on my own time.

  • Bill___A

    I have been dealing with the same hotel companies for quite a long time, so I don’t remember if I opted in or not, but it wouldn’t have been an issue at that time. However, I do see that I can control whether I get emails, postal mail, etc. When you have an existing business relationship with someone (which when you stay at a hotel, you do) I am going to expect them to expect to grow their business and market additional things to me. The trick for them is to come up with an offer of something that’s compelling to me and still worthwhile for them. I am not out there to fight with the companies I do business with.

    Is this an article that’s supposed to, in the OP’s mind, expose Wyndham for a “horrible spam email company”. I think they are just trying to do business, and I really don’t see a lot wrong with emailing someone who has already stayed with you, as long as one can opt out.

  • michael anthony

    I’ve yet to find the unsubscribe or opt out anywhere but buried in teeny tiny type somewhere near the end of the email. If this act, that levies fines, truly had any teeth, no one but the worst businesses would bury it.

  • Carol Molloy

    This regulation does have teeth. We have significant controls in place to abide by it. The provisions are not limited to advertisements. CAN SPAM applies to any mass distribution (more than 25 recipients) commercial message. For example, if we want to invite our clients to a private event we are hosting, and use email to send that invitation, we have to comply with the act. If we sent a market update to clients of our investment management services, we have to comply. The penalties are real, our regulators take it seriously, and reputation damage can be more serious than the financial penalties. Unfortunately, as with many other regulations, businesses that deliberately ignore them, make problems for all of us.

  • The Original Joe S

    “As we’ve noted elsewhere, this is not an appropriate way to ask for help.” He wasn’t asking for help. That’s HOGWASH! He was directing them to STOP SPAMMING HIM. His tone is irrelevant. Next steps would be to complain to the govt under the law and get them fined. See the can spam link in the article.

  • The Original Joe S

    Write a message filter which dumps this stuff. Add to it when a new one shows up.

  • The Original Joe S

    You’ve reached our call-screening machine. Say your name and phone number.

    Often the line goes dead after that. I NEVER answer the land line. On CELLPHONE, if I don’t recognize the number, I don’t answer. If they are somebody I want, they can leave a message. If they don’t, Mai Pen Dri*.

    *Thai: I don’t care; it doesn’t matter.

  • The Original Joe S

    Reminds me of that old TV show: battlestar myoptica

  • KennyG

    Many times when you make an online reservation, or give the clerk at the check in desk your email address, you check the box that says you agree with the terms and conditions. Many [maybe most] times no one reads those terms and conditions, but in them you usually give them the right to send you various emails and other solicitations. You have in essence, opted in. The way to opt out at that point is to click the unsubscribe link at the bottom of one of those emails. If it is in fact a reputable company, that will stop the unsolicited emails. When you click that, best you read the unsubscribe page, as there may be many options as to what you are unsubscribing from. No disagreement that it is at best a bit surreptitious, and I doubt you could actually make that online reservation without agreeing to those terms and conditions. But the company can make the argument you opted in. Shady, underhanded, yes on both accounts.

  • John McDonald

    You can never ever stop phone calls from outside the USA, so if you stop the emails, you might just get phone calls from someone on $1 an hour from some Mexican call centre. BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR !!!
    there’s a new button on my year old computer, it’s called delete & you can even send these emails to your junk mail folder. Most email programmes now have a click to block an email address or block a domain.
    1st world problem.

  • jsn55

    Ads from companies you’ve used are pretty standard on the internet. With the exception of a newsletter from Emirates, I’ve not had trouble unsubscribing … it’s no big deal to scroll down to find the link to do so.

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