Email Shenanigans

A reader (name withheld to protect the poor guy from client wrath) sent in a question about getting cheated by list brokers:

    I have a problem with company “A” that claims they sent 50,000 opt-in emails for one of my clients. They claim they have been having server problems and that the campaign was actually sent twice. However, my Web site’s log files (of which I created a ghost page to track clicks) show very limited clicks (under .05%). Company “B,” using the same HTML creative, target audience, and geography garnered about 3% CT. Company “A” claim they sent the emails; I believe they didn’t.

There might be some recourse, but it’s remote. In my own experience, when things seem fishy, there’s about a 50 percent chance that something devious was indeed going on. The other 50 percent of the time, we managed to screw something up ourselves (like messing up the ghost page). Sometimes these results occur merely because we sent the wrong linking URL to the email company.

Likely Fraud Scenarios

There are different ways a list broker can cheat an unsuspecting email marketer. Knowing these ahead of time can help you ask the right questions up front.

  • Sent something to the wrong list. Dishonest list brokers send your email out to a bunch of poor souls who have no idea how they got on the list, never mind why they might be targeted by a company such as yours. The low response rate results from poor targeting.

  • Simply didn’t send much of anything. In the most outright type of fraud, the brokers just didn’t send many emails out at all, aside from, perhaps, to themselves. They then respond to the offer themselves to give the semblance that some sort of response was going through, validating their claim of performance.


If the contract had a “right to audit” clause, the reader would have the ability to get the email logs to see if, indeed, the list broker had sent out the emails. Very few people insist on this, and fewer are able to actually exercise it. I like to make it a point of negotiation, if only to put a company on notice that we take this type of scrutiny seriously.

The reader could sue the company in civil court, provided that the damages reached a certain minimum threshold. To prove its innocence, the company would likely provide such log files. If it didn’t have log files proving performance, the reader might win such a case (although likely spending more on lawyers than the amount he or she would be collecting).

It occurs to me that this would be a good thing for some industry organization to do. Although it wouldn’t likely be profitable to any one marketer, it would keep the vendors more honest in the aftermath.

Finally, the reader could tell the potentially dishonest company that its future billings will be dependent on current performance. When selling you the email list, it presumable insisted that its audience had a certain qualification. In the above example, the targeting was clearly inappropriate relative to the competition’s. Sometimes making future deals contingent on current performance will inspire an outfit to set things right, although if it’s conducting outright fraud here, it might not be expecting or desiring future business from you.


To prevent this type of thing from happening in the future, list buyers should put themselves on the mailing lists prior to the email drop. That way, they know not only if the mail went out but also with what frequency and when. This also allows the buyer to see how easy it is to get off the list — a key determinant of targeting, because it allows the uninterested to leave.

Buyers should insist on a right-to-audit clause in the contract, identifying what specific records must be made available on request.

The most effective way to make sure this type of liability never occurs? Insist on performance-based media buys.

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