Internal Affairs slaps Safety Warehouse with $30,000 fine over unsolicited texts that 'took advantage' of COVID-19

The Safety Warehouse has been fined for sending commercial text messages that "took advantage of the second COVID-19 outbreak", the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) has revealed.

The company, which drew widespread derision earlier this month for a controversial cash drop stunt in central Auckland that left people injured and irate, has been issued a penalty of $30,000 for breaching the Unsolicited Electronic Messages Act 2007.

It's understood the DIA began investigating after receiving complaints from members of the public, who'd received texts from the company that promoted face masks and failed to offer an option to unsubscribe.

After carrying out a search warrant on The Safety Warehouse's mobile network service provider, DIA investigators discovered the company had sent more than 4800 messages on August 12, to over 4700 different individuals.

The DIA says it's not the first time The Safety Warehouse has landed itself in trouble for unsolicited texts this year.

Early in 2020, it issued the company with a formal warning for similar messages, along with information on how to comply with the Unsolicited Electronic Messages Act - but The Safety Warehouse then breached the legislation in August, resulting in a $300 civil infringement notice.

Lisa Wilkin-Krug, the DIA's manager for digital messaging and systems, hopes the ruling encourages other businesses to take a look at their approach to marketing, and ensure it complies with the Act.

"It is vital to obtain the recipient's consent prior to sending a commercial electronic message and to provide a functional unsubscribe facility within the message," she said.

"Failure to do so can result in enforcement action by DIA." 

The Safety Warehouse first rose to public infamy on December 5, when a cash drop in Auckland CBD's Aotea Square valued at $100,000 turned out to include vouchers disguised as $5 bills.

The event - attended by more than 1000 people - also caused several injuries, as people tussled over money and violent skirmishes broke out.

Following an investigation, police concluded there was "no evidence of criminal offending" - although the Commerce Commission is now looking into nine complaints about the event, including two referred by the police.

"The investigation will be into whether any representations about the event breached the Fair Trading Act 1986, which prohibits misleading and deceptive conduct," the Commerce Commission said.

In response to the backlash, The Safety Warehouse said the event wasn't a prank or scam and people did receive cash.

"The vouchers that were also presented at the event were in addition to the cash that was given away. We never could have expected the inclusion of the vouchers would have created such hostility and a misunderstood narrative," a spokesperson said in a statement.

It said the event was based on a live cash draw with live music that was free to enter, so anyone could attend.