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OfficeMax executive apologizes over 'daughter killed' mailer

Mike Seay of Illinois was shocked to receive an envelope with 'Daughter Killed in Car Crash' under his name. Data experts say companies track such information.

By Matt Pearce

9:51 PM PST, January 20, 2014

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An off-and-on customer of OfficeMax, Mike Seay has gotten the office supply company's junk mail for years. But the mail that the grieving Lindenhurst, Ill., father said he got from OfficeMax last week was different.

The envelope appeared to be a typical discount offering. But this one was addressed to "Mike Seay, Daughter Killed in Car Crash."

Seay's daughter Ashley, 17, was killed last year in a car crash along with her boyfriend.

On Sunday night, after the story went public and drew criticism against OfficeMax, a company executive apologized to Seay, who had initially struggled to get OfficeMax representatives to believe his story.

But Seay, who lives about an hour north of Chicago, says the executive's apology stopped short of explaining how an office supply company knew that his daughter had died or why it ended up on a piece of mail.

"I'm not a big OfficeMax customer. And I wouldn't have gone there and said anything to anybody there about it," Seay said, referring to the car crash. "That's not their business."

In a world where bits of personal data are mined from customers and silently sold off and shuffled among corporations, Seay, 46, appears to be the victim of marketing gone horribly wrong.

The incident has already added to the public debate over what kind of data companies and the government keep on private citizens.

"This is the tip of the iceberg. This happens all the time," said Pam Dixon, executive director of World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit public interest research group based in San Diego, noting that this is just one example of the information such companies probably hold.

In a statement, Naperville, Ill.-based OfficeMax said the mailer was "a result of a mailing list rented through a third-party provider" but did not name the provider and did not say whether the company held similar data on other prospective customers.

"We continue to investigate how this information could have been included on a mailing list and will take the necessary action to prevent situations such as this from occurring," spokeswoman Karen Denning said in a statement.

The incident was bewildering enough for Seay, an infrequent customer who has bought only some paper from OfficeMax since his daughter died Feb. 18.

He said his wife was "traumatized" after she found the OfficeMax mailer Thursday, right before the couple was about to leave home to visit a support group for parents who have lost children.

"Why do they have that?" Seay said of the information about his daughter's death. "What do they need that for? How she died, when she died? It's not really personal, but looking at them, it is. That's not something they would ever need."

Seay said he didn't want to sue, but that he wanted an apology from the company's chief executive.

OfficeMax at first had trouble believing what happened. Seay said he called a company number Friday, and that a manager at a call center refused to believe Seay had been sent the letter addressed that way.

Seay said later that day a spokeswoman for OfficeMax "acted the same way." That was before he was interviewed by reporter Nesita Kwan of Chicago's NBC5, who had gotten wind of the offending mail after Seay posted about it on Facebook. The spokeswoman was more conciliatory, Seay said, after she received a photo of the envelope.

At 9:30 Sunday night, an OfficeMax executive called to apologize to Seay, shortly after the Los Angeles Times posted a story online about the mailer.

Seay said the executive was apologetic but wouldn't directly answer how the company got the information about the death of the couple's daughter. Then his wife "grabbed the phone" and told the executive, "You can call me back when you have an answer," before hanging up, Seay told The Times on Monday.

Although the mailing was shocking, it was in some ways not surprising for those who have monitored corporate data collection, according to Dixon, the data expert.

"There were probably other people on that list that lost their children in car accidents, and we probably haven't heard about them, and he just had the gumption to take it public," said Dixon, who testified before Congress in December about corporate data-gathering.

Dixon's group has found companies selling data on rape victims, seniors suffering from dementia and people diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. She said companies created powerful data sets by combining personal information available from public records, census information and social media.

"All of us are on these lists, and right now we don't even have the right to find out what list we're on or what they say about us," Dixon said. "And I think it's becoming increasingly important for us to see this information and have some rights so we can get off these lists. For this father and mother, I can't think of a worse thing."

matt.pearce@latimes.com