Classaction lawsuits in a troubled climate

Since the first hint of recessionary pressures banks, bankers and financial institutions of all types have suddenly become the favored scapegoat/bogeyman to pin all blame on. I don’t usually concern myself too much with this sort of thing — it merely illustrates the simpleness of the public — until I find myself in a theater watching an entire movie based on such a flimsy premise, and then only concern myself as far as to write a short, meaningless post about it.

But this time is a little different. I have accounts at an online stock brokerage called TD Ameritrade (originally Ameritrade, then they merged with TD Waterhouse and rebranded themselves as banks so often do). I get email from them including their newsletter, any filing information I am required to see, shareholder’s meeting and voting information and so on. Its pretty typical stuff. I just received an unusual notice today of a classaction lawsuit against TD Ameritrade concerning spam emails. The basic argument is that TD Ameritrade somehow (directly or indirectly, it is not clear at this point) leaked some (or all?) account email addresses to stock spammers, resulting in unsolicted and deliberately false stock advice.

I have 8 email accounts which I use on a daily or at least weekly basis. I check them all regularly. I receive spam, including deliberately (and obviously) misleading stock advice in most of them. TD Ameritrade is aware of only one of those email addresses, yet I have received the same spam mail in several different addresses at once.

While it is entirely possible that TD Ameritrade could have leaked email addresses unintentionally given the technical sophistication of some of the more skilled spam cartels, that TD Ameritrade would ever intentionally sell or give out email or other personal information on account holders is highly unlikely. TD Ameritrade is a technology and information trading company at its root. It buys and sells information as the core of its business. As such a business it is intimately aware of the legal implications of violating intellectual property, privacy and information trade rights. It would be directly counterproductive for such a company to suddenly decide to sell or otherwise lose control of any personal account holder information in violation of its posted privacy policy. Their business is based upon trust and the long-term implications of violating that trust versus the short-term and relatively minor profit to be gained from the sale of account holder contact information simply weigh very strongly in favor of retaining the trust of their paying client base.

What I suspect is that someone — or a few someones — made plays based upon spammy, false email stock advice and lost some money. It may have been all fun and games in the mid 00’s, but now that people are scared of the economy and bankers have replaced George Bush as the national scapegoat its just not funny anymore. It looks like someone lost out and wants to take it out on someone… anyone who is a good and reasonable target and this particular tack makes sense from that perspective. Once a classaction lawsuit is properly baked by skillful lawyers it is a simple matter to get everyone to hop on the bandwagon hoping to claim fabulous cash prizes for doing nothing other than signing their name on a line somewhere. It is even easier to substantiate and grow (which in this case amount to the same thing) such a frivolous lawsuit when the court orders that the defendant, TD Ameritrade, contact every person potentially affected by email to notify them of the lawsuit.

Its a bit sad. I’ve received tens of thousands of spam emails purporting to be solid stock advice. I’ve received a few thousand, at least, at the address that TD Ameritrade has knowledge of. I have absolutely no reason or inclination to join such a ridiclous lawsuit, however, because it misrepresents the situation present across the internet today and tries to place blame — to the tune of lots of money — on what is essentially an information company who knows very well the importance of protecting its client’s trust and the chances of being caught in violation of that trust if it took any actions counter to the interests of its clientelle.

If this lawsuit plays out in favor of the weak, frightened or opportunistic sheep who join in then it could precipitate a host of similar actions against similar companies. This is just one way that the financial sector is being bled in the current environment. Not a happy time to be a banker… whether individual companies’ and individuals’ financial mistakes and problems are the fault of the banks or not.

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