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Stockmann CEO unaware of firm's cancer insurance telemarketing business

Many customers were upset by the sales calls. One telemarketer told a customer the supposed odds he would get cancer.

Kansainvälinen vakuutusyhtiö myy "syöpävakuutuksia" Stockmannin nimissä.
An exerpt of the Stockmann-branded insurance policy. Image: Chubb ja Stockmann

The CEO of retail chain Stockmann says he will likely intervene in a situation where an external telemarketing firm has been targeting loyal customers with alarming calls to sell cancer insurance.

Several regular customers of Finnish retailer Stockmann said they had received telemarketing calls offering cancer insurance. Some of the chain's loyalty card-carrying customers said the telemarketers' pitches were upsetting and misleading.

The telemarketers offered a one-time payout of 20,000 euros to individuals who buy the insurance plan if they are diagnosed with cancer.

But when Yle Svenska asked the company's chief executive Jari Latvanen about the insurance scheme earlier this week, he said it was the first time he'd heard about it.

He also said he did not know about the programme's third-party vendor, Swiss insurance giant Chubb - which brands the product as "Stockmann Turva" (roughly, Stockmann Safety).

"I've never heard of Chubb at all. The first I heard of it was from Yle," Latvanen said.

'Marketing was responsible'

When asked who at the company actually should know about the insurance scheme, the CEO conceded it was him.

"Of course I should know about this, but this [programme] is taken care of by our marketing people, who are responsible for our cooperation partners. This is why I now have to go through all of our partners to understand the agreements we have made [with them]," Latvanen said.

However, Stockmann's website features a page explaining Chubb's Turva plan, which is marketed as "insuring your future" offering coverage "when a cancer diagnosis comes as a surprise."

The CEO suggested that he would put an end to unpleasant telemarketing calls to the company's customers.

"I absolutely do not want to put our customers in an uncomfortable situation and scare them away. We do not want that. That is not how Stockmann operates, now or in the future," Latvanen said.

Scary sales pitches

One customer enrolled in the retailer's loyalty programme who received a call from a representative offering cancer insurance said the salesperson told her getting the coverage was a good idea because private health care firms offer significantly better and faster cancer treatments than public health care.

However, according to the secretary general of the Cancer Society of Finland, Sakari Karjalainen, that isn't so.

"If you declare that the quality of private cancer care is better than what the public side offers, then you're on thin ice," Karjalainen said, noting that health care on the public side was basically free-of-charge.

That regular customer was a middle-aged woman who'd already had cancer. She said she couldn't get a word in with the telemarketer, and added that the call was hurtful.

"I kept wondering why I was called. I was just waiting to say that the cancer care I received on the public side was actually very good," the woman, who asked to remain anonymous, told Svenska Yle.

Eventually, the telemarketer told her the call was on behalf of Stockmann.

"I'm not surprised by anything Stockmann does anymore. The company apparently needs to make money," she said, pointing out that she wouldn't even have been eligible for the cancer coverage because she'd already been diagnosed with the illness.

Stockmann, which enjoyed decades as one of the country's most successful full-service department store chains, has been struggling with competition for the past several years. While a couple of its divisions are doing well, its retail business has been lagging for some time.

Another loyal Stockmann customer who received a call about the Turva coverage said the telemarketer told him the supposed odds he would get cancer - ratios likely based on gender and age. He said it felt scary.

"It did not seem right that someone was calling me about this kind of matter in Stockmann's name. I do not understand what the company has to do with cancer care," he said.

Customer info handed to telemarketers

It remains somewhat unclear how the telemarketers were able to access the loyal customer personal data, though. Stockmann's website states that the Turva insurance plan is an exclusive offer for its loyalty card-carrying customers.

The retailer's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliance statement describes Chubb as one of the retailer's most central recipients and/or managers of its customer data. Such statements are meant to spell out how a firm or entity is complying with GDPR's strict standards of data privacy and security.

However, according to Svenska Yle, CEO Latvanen was not clear about this point and inaccurately told the Swedish-language outlet that Turva's telemarketing was handled by staffing giant Manpower. But that isn't the case anymore.

The day after Latvanen's interview, Stockmann's communications department said on Thursday that the company doesn't hand over customer personal data to Chubb or to any of its partners.

Instead, loyal customers' data is given directly to a telemarketing firm that handles the sales calls.

In its GDPR statement, Stockmann also noted that the company may share data with marketing service providers, but did not specify which ones.

Chubb selects which target groups they want to reach and Stockmann, in turn, hands over relevant details to the telemarketing firm, with information including customers' gender, age, location and telephone number. This type of information is handed over several times a year.

The company would not disclose how many of its loyal customers had their data sent to telemarketers, but Latvanen acknowledged the figure is likely in the the thousands.

€20k wouldn't go very far

A quick glance at private health care providers' pricing found that 20,000 euros would not adequately cover the costs of cancer treatment. Additionally, monthly insurance premiums gradually rise as the customer ages.

However, on the other side, a bit of extra cash could come in handy for someone who is diagnosed with a serious illness like cancer.

Personal incomes drop when people can't work anymore, the cancer society's Karjalainen said.

"Cancer can also cause financial problems, when incomes decrease and costs go up. Then a bit of extra money can come in handy," he said, adding that the decision about personal health insurance coverage must be made by individuals themselves.

Still, Karjalainen said that on a personal level he is sceptical about cancer insurance because the public health system is so good.

"I would probably spend the money on something else. I understand that [the risk of] cancer can cause concern, but in Finland cancer patients get high-quality personal care. That's something you can trust," he said.

The small print of insurance policies' terms and conditions can also be nearly impossible for people to understand, according to Karjalainen. He noted that some types of illnesses are covered while others are not.

Some types of cancer may not meet the criteria for an insurance plan's coverage. For example, skin cancers which are detected and removed at a very early stage would likely be considered too superficial to qualify for insurance payouts.

Additionally even benign tumours in and around the brain can cause numerous neurological problems, but at the same time are not officially cancer, despite the fact they're still dangerous conditions, according to Karjalainen.

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