Your E-Mail Is Blacklisted. Now What?

Over the years, spam blocking has become more sophisticated and the role of blacklists has been reduced. From time to time, though, I still deal with companies that have gotten themselves blacklisted and have little or no idea what to do about it. When I talk to such companies, I often find they are following these five steps:

  1. Ignoring it
  2. Moving servers
  3. Requesting removal
  4. Sending a legal cease-and-desist letter

Though some of these may be appropriate in the right circumstances, they’re not likely to be successful and may be extremely harmful. It’s important to understand there are many blacklists, and they vary enormously in their policies, operation, and deliverability impact.

I recommend the following five steps instead.

Understand the List

Learn about the list. Most blacklists maintain an administrative Web site that provides the answers to these questions:

  • What is its purpose? Some lists are very specific, aiming to address a particular problem, such as open relays. Others cover a wide range of activities the owners consider inappropriate for one reason or another.
  • How is it managed? Some lists are partially or even completely automated with specific listing requirements, such as the SpamCop Blocking List (SCBL). Listing for the SCBL is based on complaints and spam-trap hits.

    Other lists are entirely manual, with hosts added based on spam accusations received by the list operator.

  • What’s the delisting process? The criteria can range from automatic (SCBL listings timeout on their own) to nonexistent (if your server is U.S.-based, it’s impossible to be removed from and all shades in between.

    The process for delisting may require simply filling out a Web form, making a charitable donation, or changing list management practices.

Determine the Impact

Next, judge the impact of being listed. A list’s effect depends on who uses it and in what capacity. In general, the more trusted the list operator and lower the likelihood of false positives, the greater the listing’s effect.

The impact can, in part, be judged by looking at your e-mail delivery logs. Many sites give accurate information on why the e-mail is being rejected. Looking for specific references to either spam or the list in question can give some indication of the problem’s scale.

This approach has two shortcomings. First, some sites may accept your e-mail, then silently discard it based on your being listed. Second, sites may use a blacklist in an advisory capacity; which is to say being blacklisted may not prevent delivery on its own. Instead, the listing simply increases the likelihood of it being discarded.

Another way to evaluate a listing’s seriousness is to check its score on SpamAssassin. A higher score not only indicates that SpamAssassin users are less likely to see your e-mail but suggests the list is generally trustworthy and useful in blocking spam.

Consider the Removal Cost

Sometimes removal is fairly easy; other times, it may require significant effort. If you have an open relay, vulnerable proxy, or other security issue that permits spammers to abuse your server, immediately fix the problem. On the other hand, if a list requires that you exclusively use confirmed opt-in or change ISPs, there’ll be a business impact. This cost must be balanced against the cost of being listed.

Make the Appropriate Changes

If list removal requires changes to your system configuration or operating procedures, make those changes before requesting removal. This is particularly important for automated systems. For example, removal from the Passive Spam Block List (PSBL) is just a matter of requesting removal. However, if you haven’t removed the spam traps from your list, you will be immediately relisted when you next send a mailing.

Also, be sure to confirm your changes have been made. It’s far better to let a listing remain for an extra few days than to have your request denied or the list operator suspect that you haven’t been entirely honest about the changes you’ve made.

Follow the Removal Instructions

This is extremely important. Don’t simply e-mail the list maintainer; follow the delisting instructions. If that means filling in a Web form, do so. If it requires you to provide some evidence that you’ve made changes, provide that evidence. Then be patient; many list maintainers are volunteers.

Above all, be professional, honest, and respectful. Sure, there are some kooks running blacklists. But most are hard-working volunteers, and nothing is gained by venting your frustration and anger. It may make you feel better, but it won’t accomplish your goals and may make a bad situation worse.

Until next time,


Want more e-mail marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our e-mail columns, organized by topic.

Derek is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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