Digital Marketing Ethics: The Depravity of Selling Email Lists

Imagine you make a new professional contact — perhaps a potential friend, even — at a conference. After a long and stimulating chat with them, you give them your business card and write your personal phone number on the back so you can keep in touch.

A couple days later, you get a late-night phone call from a stranger who wants to offer you a “business opportunity” that immediately smells like a scam. When you ask them how they got your number, the stranger tells you your new friend from the conference gave it to them.

Now, ask yourself: Would you ever trust that “friend” again or even speak to them anymore? Presumably not.

So, why do so many companies and business owners feel comfortable engaging in this exact same type of egregious, untrustworthy behavior when they sell email lists? And why do they think their reputation won’t face the inevitable consequences of their bad behavior?

Legal Loopholes Perpetuate Email List Sales, but That Doesn’t Mean Selling Contacts is Safe (or Smart)

The buying and selling of email lists persists in the United States thanks to inadequate legal protections for consumers. The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act of 2003 establishes national standards for commercial email communications. CAN-SPAM specifically bans the buying and selling of email lists, but it does allow for the “renting” of email lists, which is what the companies who purchase email contacts inevitably claim they are doing.

Like any good scofflaw, many of the companies that buy and sell email lists have learned to work within the loopholes of the current law, and they can avoid legal consequences for their actions if they thread the needle just so. Other companies flat-out break the law but don’t face the consequences due to the difficulty of enforcement.

Still, banking on not getting caught is a risky move, and the penalties that CAN-SPAM imposes for companies who violate its provisions are severe: up to $41,484 per email. The act also stipulates that more than one company can be held responsible for violations, so both the company that sent out the email and the company that sold them the contact information could receive fines over the same message.

And even if your email list sales fall within the confines of what’s allowed by law, you could still run afoul of email service providers, who usually prohibit sending to purchased lists. If too many of your subscribers complain about your behavior or start marking your company’s emails as spam, you could end up getting your business locked out from sending any further emails to your contacts.

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In This Corner, the Almighty Dollar

There’s only one argument in favor of selling lists of email contacts, and it’s a simple one: You can make a quick buck by doing it. If you’ve built a list of subscribers by sending out email content, there are companies out there that would like to market to those subscribers, and they’ll pay you for the opportunity to do so.

Of course, the companies that pay for email lists are like people who buy their friends — they do it because they’re fundamentally dysfunctional and can’t make connections otherwise. These companies often boast shady reputations, peddle low-quality products, and think nothing of sending egregious and intrusive spam to any email address they can get their hands on. Unfortunately, for the business owners who sell to them, it’s worth it to throw their followers to the wolves for a little extra short-term profit.

So, let’s get one thing straight: if you currently sell email lists to the highest bidder, you’re one of the bad guys. If you’re doing so because you think other companies are doing it and it’s all part and parcel of today’s cutthroat digital marketing landscape, you’re wrong. No credible digital marketing expert will endorse the buying and selling of email contacts because it’s unethical and because it doesn’t produce results.

Not only does selling off your customers’ email contacts violate their trust, but it waters down the value of your email list, too. Once your customers realize they’re receiving unwanted spam, they’ll likely take steps to get it out of their inbox. They might turn on spam-blocking features and start marking more messages as spam (yours included), or they may even abandon the email address entirely and switch to a new one. They may unsubscribe from email lists (again, including yours) and start ignoring more and more of the messages that wind up in their inbox, only opening communications from friends and family. Any of these outcomes can destroy the value of the email subscriber list you’ve worked so hard to build.

Still, a massive drop in your email open rates after selling a list should be the least of your worries. Customers who figure out the source of the sudden spam influx might direct angry emails or phone calls your way. They may write negative reviews of your business and tell friends, family, and anyone else who will listen to avoid you. They might even report your behavior to the authorities, and if you’ve violated the law by sharing their information, you and your business could face serious consequences.

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But even if you can get away with selling your email lists and avoid any legal ramifications, that doesn’t mean you’ll get off scot-free. Many companies that lack experience with web sales and don’t understand the digital marketing world envision the internet as a massive, anonymous space where actions don’t yield tangible consequences.

In reality, the web can be a small place, and especially so within a niche industry or field. If you violate your audience’s trust and turn your email contacts against you by sharing their information, you can expect to make a lot of enemies and sow a negative reputation that could taint your company’s brand forever. So, the next time you receive an offer to purchase (sorry — “rent”) your email contacts, look at whatever dollar figure they’re dangling in front of you and ask yourself: is it worth the price of my business’ soul?

LaFleur Treats Email Lists and Other Confidential Information With Respect

At LaFleur, we understand that trust and credibility are hard to earn and easy to squander. That’s why we always treat email contacts and any other confidential information with the utmost care and respect. There are no shortcuts to digital marketing success, but that’s okay — we find that building a brand the right way is not only rewarding but delivers the best returns for our clients.

To learn more about LaFleur or discuss a potential marketing partnership, please complete this brief contact form or give us a call at (888) 222-1512. We can’t wait to learn about your company and brand so we can begin working to develop proven, ethical strategies that will connect you with new customers and clients.


Brown, C., & Fair, L. (2015, August 18). Candid answers to CAN-SPAM questions. Federal Trade Commission. Retrieved from