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Spam Insanity: The New Normal?

  |  June 21, 2002   |  Comments

Not yet nailed as a spammer? You will be (whether you deserve it or not). Edward offers three proactive steps to take now.

I get a lot of spam. That’s what I get for writing a column and including my email address at the end. Am I concerned? Not really. The facts of life include spam and taxes.

What I am concerned about is the problem spam poses to legitimate email marketers and publishers. Not only must we compete for inbox attention with umpteen messages for Viagra despite trying to be squeaky clean (confirmed opt-in), I find we still have spam complaints logged against us that portray us as the Devil incarnate. The hoops we good guys have to jump through are multiplying -- while the bad guys seem to roam unaffected.

If you send email for a living, make sure you have an abuse desk to help deal with inevitable complaints. This simply means having an email alias like abuse@yourdomain.com. If a recipient believes your message is spam, she’s likely to send a complaint to that address. Some automated antispam tools forward offending email to an "abuse@" address as a default. And, no, just because you’re convinced you’re sending to a clean list and playing by the rules doesn’t mean you don’t need an abuse desk. If you send email, you need one. Even fully confirmed, opt-in email generates complaints.

Make sure that address is staffed by a human being. If you’re a one-person shop, make sure it’s you. If you’re a larger shop, consider putting yourself on the list anyway. Read the complaints, reply to them, keep copies -- those are orders! Otherwise, bad things will happen. Mark my words, some real zingers out there are looking to trip you up, even if you do everything right.

Insanity No. 1: The Law Suit

By now, most of you have heard stories of spam recipients suing senders, charging $500 per email. Perhaps you’ve seen such demands yourself. The rumors seem to have surpassed the reality, giving birth to a host of copycats and scam artists. The idea behind the claims is based on the premise email is a "recipient pays" medium. In traditional direct marketing the sender pays the postage. Email marketing relies on the recipient having an Internet connection. That connection costs money, be it personal or corporate.

We recently received a spam complaint from an individual demanding payment of $500 for each message we sent to that person. As our lists are confirmed opt-in, we knew it wasn’t possible the individual received information without signing up for it. Our investigation showed this user signed up for, and confirmed, mailing from an unusually large number of lists. When we tried to communicate this to the complaining individual: Boom! Another $500, please!

The user filed a lawsuit in a small town outside Bakersfield, CA. The judge decided to hear the case, despite the fact we had unsubscribed the user on first request and had a record of the subscription. When our lawyer arrived in California, he noticed the largest industry in the town was a federal penitentiary. The plaintiff didn’t show up in court. Likely scenario? A prison-bound copycat looking to scam a few bucks. Sign up for a few hundred (or thousand) newsletters, threaten lawsuits. Hey, who knows? Maybe someone will pay.

Insanity No. 2: Lazy Users and Bad Spam Filters

As the volume of spam increases, so does a scary trend: Don’t bother unsubscribing, just report it as spam. Perhaps this stems from the email marketing urban myth: replying to spam only confirms you’re a live target. I never bought this theory. It’s cheap enough for spammers to send to millions of addresses indiscriminately, do they really care if you’re an actual person? Do they generate "premium" spam lists? It’s cheaper and easier to just keep spamming everyone.

Nevertheless, we continually receive spam complaints lodged against valid, confirmed opt-in email newsletters. In the worst-case scenario, people even report our confirmation emails as spam. This is especially frustrating because the very purpose of a confirmation email is to make sure the subscriber really exists. Yet for these and other legitimate emails we send users, many recipients’ first course of action is to lodge a spam complaint rather than attempt to unsubscribe or contact us for assistance.

Unfortunately, many spam-fighting tools and services encourage such behavior. Forced to fight spam in a world where the bad guys change servers every few minutes, spam-fighting services have to act quickly, assuming a "guilty until proven innocent" stance. For the user, a "call it spam, and it stops coming" tactic encourages people to report messages as spam that aren’t.

For fairness sake, I should say I’m neither calling users lazy nor spam filters bad. But put them together in a world where real spammers go unpunished and urban myths abound, and you have the potential for a self-perpetuating system encouraging users to label everything they don’t like (or don’t immediately recognize) spam.

Insanity No. 3: The Future Is Now

That was the good news. Now the bad: It’s only getting worse. Just the other day, I got my first phone spam. Some crackpot sent email to my cell phone to sign up for news alerts.

The problem isn’t users are lazy or a few scam artists are looking to make a few bucks. The problem is real spam has gotten so out of control the above scenarios are commonplace. Real spammers and shady list brokers send spam with impunity.

The first part of the battle has been a success. It’s widely agreed that as email marketers and publishers we need to be responsible and play by the rules. Gone are the days when legitimate marketers questioned whether they really needed permission to email users. The lines between white hat and black hat are clear, at least to us. Now, we need make sure our users know the difference and do what we can to fight real spam.

Set up an abuse desk, respond to your users. Educate them about your practices. Don’t simply remove them when they cry "Spam!," but investigate to figure out what went wrong and respond. Demand clean lists from your list brokers. Demand your money back if a campaign generates legitimate spam complaints. Be a force for change within your organization. Help shape the debate and join ClickZ’s antispam movement by emailing us at nospam@clickz.com. The cost of doing nothing?

Open rate: 0.

Got a question? Think I’m full of it? Let me know -- send me email!


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Edward Grossman Formerly vice president of Web operations for Jupitermedia's internet.com network (ClickZ's parent), Edward Grossman was responsible for newsletter operations and unflappably oversaw the production and distribution of over 200 e-newsletters. He's been an online editor, producer and developer since 1995 on sites including internet.com, WebDeveloper.com, JavaScript.com and Gif.com. Edward's articles on newsletter publishing, Web development and the Internet industry have appeared online and off. Currently he's EVP of Digital Media at CMP Medica.

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