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Cover image for I was emailed after abandoning a registration form. I did not click Submit. This is not ok.

I was emailed after abandoning a registration form. I did not click Submit. This is not ok.

heshiebee profile image Heshie Brody ใƒป3 min read

We had a baby recently and my wife and I were online shopping for breast pumps. Our health insurance company website redirected me to a website named aeroflowbreastpumps.com where they had a form that I could input my insurance details and this website would take care of the billing for me and have my insurance pay for it.
I filled out the form but did not submit the form yet since my wife wanted to get some more feedback on which model we were going to purchase.

Approximately 10 minutes later I got an email from "aeroflowbreastpumps.com" telling me how close I am to qualifying for a breast pump.
Email ad

I was quite shocked since I knew I had never clicked submit and I still had the tab open in my browser with the information filled out.
So I decided to try it out with another email address of mine and see if it'll happen again.

Sure enough it did...!

I took some screenshots so you can see for yourself:

  • The Website Posting Form Data Before I Click Submit:
    The Website Posting Form Data Before I Click Submit

  • You Can See The Params Being Added To The Query String(The initial email is shown below)
    You Can See The Params Being Added To The Query String

  • Scripts Initiated By Input Change
    Scripts Initiated By Input Change

  • The website will try to track any activity and save it with the email it took.
    Email Input Trigger Code
    Email Input Trigger Code

Who's Is Behind This Technology?

The company behind this is called AddShoppers.
AddShoppers has a program named "Email Retargetingยฎ Co-op + SafeOptยฎ Consumer Rights Management Integrated Platform"

Let them explain it to you in their own words:

  • The Problem: Customers Don't Always Want To Give Their Email... The Problem

"Regardless of email acquisition..."

  • The Solution: Network many sites to a point where at least one knows who you are, once identified that website will share it with the rest of the network.

Alt Text

Now, let's think about how this would play out off-line with your physical presence.
Imagine if every store you visited would take a picture of you and then share and compare it with neighboring stores until they find one that you are a customer of and has your information.
If such an agreement was in place, that store would now share who you are with the store that you are not yet a customer of and then add you to their marketing list.
This is exactly what "AddShoppers" does.

Scary(and creepy)...!

I'm not accusing them if this is legal since this is way out of my realm and they probably have a legal team to back this kind of stuff but it's still not ok. It's not right.
If your going to take my email address then at least let me know before I type anything.
Spamming customers will make them lose trust in you more than anything.
Integrity, communication and honesty are not just for real life social interactions.

The internet is real. The people using it are real. Be real.

Posted on by:

heshiebee profile

Heshie Brody

@heshiebee

Software Engineer. Ruby On Rails, JS and React. SAP B1 on MS SQL Server. @flatironschool 2018. Software Enginner @ https://sitepod.com

Discussion

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Well, that's a clear violation of the CAN-SPAM U.S. Federal Law if there ever was one. The penalty for sending spam like that is $16,000 USD per violation with no limits enforceable by the FTC (i.e. if they send a mere 1,000 such messages, that's punishable for $16 million USD). And the Federal government sure could use the cash right now.

But it seems like you could do some exciting things with that form. Fill it in with: 'abuse@ theirwebhostingprovider.com' (whoever their provider is) in an Incognito window from a different WiFi network than yours and see what happens. If their system sends an automated email about breast pumps to their own hosting provider's abuse department, that will be quite difficult to explain away! "Um, we sent that message...because...um...we'll have to get back to you on that..."

 

Super funny, love it, it's basically trolling.

On the other hand they could be in range of law where they have the right to keep these things and send such emails. Some sites have Terms & Conditions which makes them avoid these kind of things. I don't think this can go directly under CAN-SPAM. You actually went to the site filled in email yourself willingly giving away the address. Now it might be in T&C on their site that you accept such thing if you proceed.

Problem for them might be that you didn't press "I accept / agree / Allow ..." and they just have the info somewhere hidden which I'm unsure how much would it make an issue for them.

 

T&Cs always have to abide by law. Companies can write in their T&Cs what they want, that does not make them lawfully sound and solid.

 

Very true, Im sure they are not allowed to sell their platform to Canadian companies, I wish we had the same protection in the US but unfortunately we do not. I used to work for a couple of popular email marketing platforms and honestly the people who are buying this companies services/platform are idiots. This is a terrible way to target new customers. No one responds to spam mail well, the amount of click thru's and actual ROI you would see from a platform like this has to be very very low. You make a great point also that half of the data that they do acquire is most likely dirty data that isn't even useful! This is essentially a very legal scam.

 

It doesn't read to me as of they read the email address out of the form. What I think was going on is that he had freely given his email address to another customer of AddShoppers and AddShoppers passed it on to Aeroflow. So the problem is either browser fingerprinting or third party cookies. My bet is on the cookies.

 

I like that idea ๐Ÿ˜

 

They use liquidweb.com for those wondering!

A "gray" area? With all due respect, but what is this behavior if not a blatant violation of the core principle of transparency and consent? No, this behavior is a brutal act against what the GDPR stands for: it is intransparent, it is uninformed on the part of the data subject, and it is without consent.

From the GDPR (see Wikipedia):
"consent must have been explicit for data collected and each purpose data is used for (Article 7; defined in Article 4). Consent must be a specific, freely-given, plainly-worded, and unambiguous affirmation given by the data subject".

So looking at this GDPR blog post they allow site admins to opt out of collecting PII and will work with existing cookie notification systems in order to respect customers choices, its a bit of a cop-out but they put the onus on the merchant to get consent and give them seemingly adequate tools to do so.

Checking the site mentioned as an EU customer with tracking protection and ad blocking turned off I see no GDPR notification and they are still making the request, so in this case it would be in violation of GDPR, however given that the form is for US customers enquiring about using health insurance to get a breast pump, its a bit of a moot point.

So looking at this GDPR blog post they allow site admins to opt out of collecting PII and will work with existing cookie notification systems in order to respect customers choices, its a bit of a cop-out but they put the onus on the merchant to get consent and give them seemingly adequate tools to do so.

Checking the site mentioned as an EU customer with tracking protection and ad blocking turned off I see no GDPR notification and they are still making the request, so in this case it would be in violation of GDPR, however given that the form is for US customers enquiring about using health insurance to get a breast pump, its a bit of a moot point.

 

Not cool, and the saddest part is that there are developers out there willing to facilitate this unethical behaviour. I would rather quit my job...

 

That's an awesome idea until you have kids.

 

No. That's a cop-out. I have kids; and I want to make the world a better place for them. If everyone makes a stand against this kind of crap then employers will stop expecting developers to screw over their fellow humans for the sake of a quick buck.

Fortunately my current employers also have appropriate ethical standards. If yours don't then start looking for another job; or better still raise you concerns with them. Case in point: I totally respect the Facebook employees making a stand over Zuckerberg's lame response to Trump's incitement to violence towards protesters in the US.

Then you'll agree to pay my mortgage (or rent), fill up my fridge, keep my lights on and keep my kids in their private schools (my choice, and I do not care if anyone disagrees).

Agreed, if everyone takes a stand, but that's not happening over something this trivial .. and I really like my life the way it is. This is not the hill I would even consider dying on; you can have it.

Your point would be valid if he wasn't a developer drowning in job opportunities (unless he's a very bad one maybe.. but even then)

I guess there has to be some balance though: there presumably are developers out there for whom job security is not guaranteed; or too great a risk (as TH Jones II reasonably suggests). But in that case I'm not sure I would consider an employer who engages in shady/illegal practices as a safe long-term bet and would still be looking to move on.

As for David - he clearly enjoys his privilege. I don't disagree that in the grand scheme of things this is a comparatively trivial example; but the question is: where do you draw the line?

Very very far from here. And don't think I missed the brush you're trying to paint me with by using the word 'privilege'. FFS, I'm a 48 year old liberal ... it's just that the world isn't as black and white (i.e. simple) as I used to think it was.

Gosh darn, now I know how it feels to be on the receiving end of shiat like this.

Sorry if I've offended; but let's be clear: most full-time employed developers are in a privileged position - myself most definitely included. IMO we should therefore take some responsibility for the world we are helping to create. If we're not willing to push back over something this 'trivial' then where does it end?

In Europe what this company did would be considered illegal. To me that's a clear line I won't cross. In fact that makes it an easy decision to make and an easy stand to take; however complex the world happens to be. Maybe it's not what you intended; but your response gave the distinct impression that your material comforts were well worth the price of breaking this 'trivial' law.

"but your response gave the distinct impression that your material comforts were well worth the price of breaking this 'trivial' law."

No, my point was it's not 'illegal' (loaded term) here and I already bitch about the cops (as a white guy and have for years), selfish policies (basically: 'conservative' ideals) and privacy (believe it or not) ... but I also know (my peers) don't know too much about GDPR and as soon as I mention it's a "Euro" thing 1/2 of them would tune me out (not sure I blame them) and the other 1/2 would probably roll their eyes

I do enjoy honest debates and I do not consider your privacy (or mine) trivial in any way whatsoever and I think the current state of affairs is disgusting (on both sides of the pond). To me, it seems like the problem I run into is that I have a very measured, pragmatic approach to things (it comes with age so they say) ... and don't think it's quite time for a lot of very important things (yet, sadly) so people think I'm arguing against an idea ... I'm usually not. People (rightfully) want to fix everything that broken right now .. and in my experience that's just not the way things work in the real world.

Let's fix the obvious problems with criminal law first. Not addressing this first (and by itself) is offensive to me and trivializes real suffering . You can have my freakin privacy if it'll keep people alive (which should be a false dichotomy in a free society) and out of jail (unless you are actually dangerous to society)

I guess we're looking at things from somewhat different cultural perspectives. The impression I have of the US is that things are really weighted against you: on face value it all looks so appealing - if you happen to be on the right side of the social divide. But if there really is no safety net and you fall on hard times you're essentially a slave to whatever system those with power have set up.

To put my original comment in context: I was able to give up both a toxic work environment and (IMO) a toxic country (the UK); move to another country with no contacts - and where I don't speak the language - and find gainful employment all in the space of 6 months. I appreciate that not everyone has that luxury; but that's precisely my point: those of us who do should use that leverage to effect meaningful change. So if an employer did put me in a position that went against my personal ethics (let alone the law) and resisted all my attempts to push back I really would have no hesitation to quit.

"..I have of the US is that things are really weighted against you"

Heh, it's funny how much things change. When I lived 'abroad' in the late 80's and early 90's I was distressed to learn how much everyone else in the world seemed to be paying attention to everything we did and said (looking for a 'sign', it seemed) ... actually, a lot of the people who lived in the 'shiat hole' countries seemed to have the impression we were mere minutes from swooping in and saving them from something or another.

It was an unrealistically high opinion that was obviously going to to swing to the other extreme at some point (which it has) ...

Every place has good and bad parts my friend and I prefer being here ... or down in Australia. Not real fond of European culture .. it felt inscrutably "class" based (to an outsider at least) and I can't think of many things that bother me more (though I do enjoy hanging with Slavs ... )

 

Ideals are great and all, but, until there's a meaningful social safety-net that affords me the luxury of taking a stand any time an employer decides to do something shady, best many of us can do is go into active job-search mode and walk at the first opportunity.

Unfortunately, in the US, if you have any chronic health conditions (or responsible for someone who does), you're kind of constrained.

 

"but, until there's a meaningful social safety-net that affords me the luxury of taking a stand any time an employer decides to do something shady"

a.m.e.n.

I get sooooo tired of hearing "just quit" like that's even remotely possible these days (for 98.9% of us)

When I was still in my 20s, single with no mortgage or pets, it was doable. Now, with a wife with chronic health conditions, mortgage and pets, my ability to take a stand on principle requires a lot more deliberation.

At best, a given thing can make me decide, "time to shake my professional network to see who's hiring" or otherwise refresh my resume and jobsite-presences, but that's hair-trigger as I can currently be.

On the plus side of COVID-19 and its potential lasting-effects, I don't necessarily automatically have to give up my work-from-home just to take a new position.

 

Absolutely! Great response and kudos to you.

Unfortunately, there are enough developers who just don't care. They do as they are told.

In Germany, executing given orders that are apparently illegal can subject you to legal prosecution. And rightly so.

 

Substitute developers with soldiers and think Nuremberg trials

 

I'm speechless. This is very creepy. Gotta build a browser extension that monitors requests being made while filling forms (though now that I think of it, that may not be allowed).
Wish there was a legal way to handle this.

 

Maybe could be an extension that holds the value of every input, and fill them when de form is submited.

 

i dont get it. How would this monitor that the website is spying and making ajax requests?

I didn't research yet. My initial thoughts were either:

  • monitor inputs and check if requests are sent with that data (not sure about extension permissions allow this)
  • or just blindly replace some critical input fields (name, email, etc), record the inputs and put them back into the form before submit. (credit to arerbac-ad for coming up with the idea)

I'm not 100% sure we can do this, but we wanted to try out some ideas and see. Do you think these ideas won't work for technical reasons?

I get it now. The original answer wasn't as clear.
There will be some technical challenges to doing this, but I'd be interested in following your progress if you share a link to your repo (or better yet, a demo)!

That sounds wonderful! Thanks for your support. I will try and start the basic implementation, so we can have a look and consider our options or improve. I have only limited experience building Chrome extensions, but I'm sure if we put our heads together we can build a feasible solution somehow.

I was just browsing around, and thought this extension had some characteristics we could look into (monitoring request body etc). Need to check thoroughly.
chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/...

 

I'll tell you once I've started on this hopefully this weekend ๐Ÿ™‚๐Ÿป

 

Hey, that's a clever idea! Thats very good. Will look into it. ๐Ÿ˜Š๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿป

 

Im considering the implications of handling autocomplete and input validations.

 

Great idea! Let me know if you need any help, would love to collaborate.

 

Thanks! Let's do it. I'll try and setup a Chrome extension codebase. Will try and start it this weekend. Will link it here. I'll add the base implementation and we can work together on it. Does that sound like a good plan?

I'm committed to a project until the end of June.
Will try to add as much as I can until then.
Please dm me so we can exchange contact info.

 

Reading the T&C at aeroflowbreastpumps.com/terms-and-..., it includes this line โ€œBy signing and submitting this form, I consent to receive phone calls, emails ...โ€ which to me suggests you shouldnโ€™t have received an email until you hit the submit button.

So it appears theyโ€™re in violation of their own T&C.

 

Exactly! I did not find anywhere on their site mentioning this behavior.

 

Good catch. Their reading is probably: "by signing (= filling in) as well as by submitting". In any way, it's just another violation of the principles of transparency and informed consent.

 

Yo, what about GDPR or similar laws? In the Europe this is not legal.
When GDPR started, I was thinking, oh not another cookie notification, but then I realized that it is kinda cool to ask people if they actually want to give away they details, not just take them. It is civilized thing to do.

I am not so familiar with US laws about privacy and spam but as I remember they can't send you anything until you submit your email, right?

We should stop this next level black-hat data scraping/stealing shenanigans!

 

Don't forget that privacy laws vary tremendously between countries. Sure, wether a U.S.-based (?) company cares about the laws in other countries is a different matter. If they plan to do business there, then they should care about it. This thing would be illegal throughout Europe.

 

As a wise man once said:

You were so preoccupied with whether or not you could that you didn't stop to think if you should.

Seriously, I think their place in dark patterns's hall of shame is well deserved ๐Ÿ™„

 

I recall a demo where a visitor while entering the 3rd 4th and 5th chr of their ZIP code (US), the corresponding address information would filter down then autofill the city and state fields.

The fields were asynchronous and could be tied to any data point. That was the point of the demo. The user never had to submit the data.

 

Very interesting post. The state of privacy seems to only be getting worse as companies are getting very desperate to squeeze more and more data out of each and everyone of us. Thank you for posting the behind the scene code to this.

 

Such behavior deserves the biggest ๐Ÿ’ฉ-storm in history, really.

You are absolutely right, this is the worst a company can do to potential customers. It is definitely illegal under European privacy laws.

Thank you so much for sharing. Let's hope our dislikes will be heard!

 

Let me scare you just a little more. I had same story with PayPal. Didn't click anywhere to pay on PayPal. But the payment has been processed anyway. (and the merchant recorded the order & everything)

Luckily PayPal agreed to refund... But well, it feels bad.

Note: this probably happened because I agree to pay in one click with PayPal. My problem is that... I didn't make ANY click (on paypal).

 

I had a PayPal issue in which I purchased an item through vendor A, who uses 3rd party transaction service B. A while later I made another purchase from vendor A, and my PayPal transaction went through without ever asking me for what funding source I wanted to use, and did not use my current default but used the source my first transaction had been through, with no confirmation step or anything. Not exactly the same but not cool.

 

That is scary. I was afraid to ever agree to pay in one click with PayPal an this makes me think I was right

You closed the page without submitting. Where's the consent? There isn't any.

Of course it was violated, for the reasons I stated above.

There is a "Submit" button. So the user rightfully assumes that nothing is submitted before you hit that button. And that's the way forms are implemented and have been implemented in the vast majority of cases.

Of course there are always technological ways to go around things. But blaming the user here (don't type your information if you want to keep it secret) is exactly why GDPR has been invented. It makes consent explicit and data collection transparent to all parties involved.

And don't forget that the said solution sends much more than "just" an e-mail address. But nevertheless, even just an e-mail address is a blatant violation.

Your argumentation makes me think you have never bothered
to read, let alone understand, the GDPR. (No offense.)

 

By the way, congratulations on becoming parents ๐Ÿ˜๐Ÿ˜๐Ÿ˜

 

Thank you!!

 

This is horrible! Given how much people care about privacy, I am sure thousands of companies are doing this. Good that you shared this story with us. As @sebastian said, we should hope our dislikes are heard.

 
 

The exact same thing happened to me just a few days ago. Funny thing is, it didn't make me want to buy the product any more... just creeped me out. Great article, it was interesting to see how it works behind the scenes.

 

There's google tags manager that's 10 times creepier than this, It can log every interaction you have with html tags. Say you visited a shopping website and you hovered over an image of a particular product, this data gets recorded in the database.

There's an extension called NoScript that prevents running of scripts unless you white-flag it. This blocks all scripts from running, initially this will break many sites that you visit.You can then select from the extension which all necessary scripts needs to be run. NoScript then remembers this setting when you visit the website next time. NoScript is installed by default on the Tor browser. Here's a look at my setting for Dev in NoScript
dev-to-uploads.s3.amazonaws.com/i/...

Link to extension for Firefox addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/a...

 

Timely but relevant: I noticed this week that the NAACP does this on their donation form:

NAACP donation form post abandonment

And the email I received after abandoning:

Abandonment email

How does everyone feel when the tactic is used in this scenario for an organization that relies on donations?

 

Wow, I keep on hearing more of these.
We need to adopt something like the GDPR here in the US.

 

Your real world example is basically what goes on at several chains of malls (Simon properties was a pioneer in this). There, though, they track the emanations from your cellphone. Lesson: either don't shop at such malls or, if you do, put your phone on airplane mode or in an empty potatochip bag.

Minority Report wasn't that far off on some things.

 

yikes on bikes .

 

If this was done anywhere in the EU, we could bring the mighty GDPR hammer down on those fools.

This reads like a digital form of stalking and should be prosecuted.

Thank you for the heads up!

 

They don't even need to have an address in the EU themselves, if someone in Europe can use that site as intended, they're subject to GDPR.

IANAL but I'm pretty sure this is against GDPR as it's silently tracing your every move on this website.

 

I would think so too, but jurisdiction would be terrible to handle across the big pond. How and where would you even try to prosecute them?
It would be very interesting to get a lawyers opinion on this topic.

the answer would probably "in absentia" unless the defendant has compelling business interests in one (or more) of the EU countries. all they can do is ask them to come to court - this isn't criminal so there's not going to be an extradition.

 

Had a similar experience a while ago. My partner and I were halfway through filling out some form on a banking website to get pre-approved for a home loan, but found a different place and abandoned the form and closed the tab. The next day we got notified that this company ran even the incomplete information we'd typed and we each had a new inquiry on our credit reports. We never hit submit or made any indication of consent at all. Really freaked me out, and I'm incredibly cautious about filling any forms out now.

 

It all depends on a type of marketing. Companies are allowed to send transactional marketing campaigns even if you are not subscribed to their newsletters. If you are a member of that product, you can't hide away from it.

Marketers often try to cross the boundaries by targeting their users with transactional campaigns, just to bring the user back to the site. By any means, I agree that this is a big concern and should be avoided by any means.

 

Not cool and if you see what's possible with apps like Shopify it's even worse, you can see who abandonned their cart and there is built-in (and optional) apps to automatically send a mail to them every X days / minutes for X days.

 

Well... I think in Germany you have a law that actually backs up "reserving and order". So my friend had an order from a company in Germany it might be even eBay Germany. After putting stuff in "cart" and then not doing anything, not ordering but also not clearing the "cart", he left the page, and after couple of days got some kind of fine which he had to pay because you apparently must clear the order in some time unless you actually want to buy....

Hope someone from Germany can see the comment to back it up with correct version of what is this law.

P.S. similar thing happened to me where I received email that I didn't finish my order (Swedish site). However this was saving my order in case my browser crashed or something and orders expire in like 24h or so. So basically they didn't ask me but it's a useful feature. They did however put in email something like "do you have problems with ordering? call us / email us /...". I did have an issue with order on another web shop and thought hmm it would be good if these guys had that tracker :D

 

Crazy, imagine all the sites that do similar stuff under the hood... Scary...

 

How would a dev implement such a thing? I would quit my job right away if my boss said this is what I have to implement.

By the way congrats! :)

 

Thank you!

 

I shared this post on twitter as well as tagging them. I think publicly ask for modifications can be of effect. This is definitely not ok.

 

Does this mean what I think it means?

 

"I'm not accusing them if this is legal since this is way out of my realm and they probably have a legal team to back this kind of stuff but it's still not ok. It's not right." - It probably is.

I wonder if filling different emails before without submit could be illegal (We surely can't prosecute typos right?).

 

in the USA that's a civil law, not a criminal one and there's a huge difference between the two (and most of us don't understand this distinction)

 

This is a common pattern used in abandonend cart retargetting.

 

Abandoned cart usually uses cookies or user accounts, not scraping your email off half submitted forms