How PayPal (really) hit the email oops gallery

Digital direct marketing is fast-paced. Thus, things can easily go wrong. We have seen the New York Times sending emails to 8 million subscribers instead of 300. We have also seen Mini stuffing people’s inboxes with hundreds of newsletters by mistake.

And speaking of such severe failures – here is what PayPal sent to many (or even all?) of its 20 million German accounts lately…


Above is a screenshot of my inbox. The first email is a correction. It says “Invalid announcement on the raffle” in the subject line. Below is the one that brought PayPal the trouble, which says “Congratulations – €500 shopping credit is in your PayPal account, now”.

The email was correctly authenticated, as visualized by the trust icon on the left of the friendly name in Gmail.


PayPal is often attacked by password phishers. The yellow key helps people to distinguish fake from real email. No wonder then that the unexpected and spammy “you won” caused much confusion among the recipients.

And it remained for hours, because PayPal chose to apologize secretly on another channel first: on Facebook. The wall post, which was published about 2 hours after the email arrived, confirmed that the email was real, but caused by a technical glitch. The draw hasn’t taken place, yet.

Sorry, no €500.

But wait, not so fast…

Legal consequences

There may have been good reasons for PayPal to think extremely carefully about the next steps and to wait 8 hours before sending the official apology email.

Several German lawyers stated in their blogs that such prize notifications can easily get legally binding. It was necessary for PayPal to challenge the message immediately. An important paragraph in the German Civil Code (“BGB”) says:

“Undertakings which send prize notifications or other similar communications to specific consumers, and by the wording of those communications give the impression that the consumer has won a particular prize, must give that prize to the consumer; it may also be claimed in legal proceedings.”

The shit hit the fan. If things go bad, it may be only a matter of time until the first free-riders go to court.

Some already plan class action lawsuits. The Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel cites a lawyer who sees a 50/50 chance of winning while risiking about €1530 court fees.

Suddenly, the “Want it? Get it.” (“Willste? Kriegste.”) campaign could cost PayPal alot more than they expected. Originally, they planned to raffle 10 x €500 each week during a 10-week period among customers, who paid one of 150 summer offers using their PayPal accounts.

Email gallery

Below you’ll find the two emails (mistake and apology) with Google translations for the records. Especially the last clause in the apology email should be noted:

“To clarify: This notice is a challenge to the email from 2013-06-07 in terms of the competition with regards to §§ 119, 120 BGB.” (freely translated)


paypal-oops-email_2 paypal-oops-email_3

(Google translate 1, translate 2)

Final idea

Remember that you normally can exchange the images in your newsletter on the server as well as its web version after the send out. This way, one could have notified the email openers immediately about the mistake.

PayPal did neither the one nor the other. Although this could have prevented some of the confusion.

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