Thou Shalt Not Spam

Spam is more than just a processed meat-food product that fed hungry, displaced Europeans during and after World War II, a real Marshal Plan staple. Nor is it merely the subject of one of Monty Python’s more famous and entertaining skits. No, it is unwanted and annoying electronic communication between some company and their target audience. 

Email Spam

It began as the email equivalent of junk mail and, like junk mail; it is just as impossible to stop. At first it was merely irritating, but as the Web evolved, so did spam. Now, by law, there has to be a way for recipients to opt out of mailings. And as people click on these links and opt out of these mailings, one of two things happens:

  1. The spamming company will honor your request and take you off their list. This is what should happen. Then, another spammer appears to take their place.
     
  2. They use your complaint to simply verify that they have a live email address and they the lie to you, telling you that they will take you off while, in truth, making sure you keep getting their mailings. They may even sell your email address to another company and you find yourself getting even more spam. 

Neither of these scenarios get you what you want, which is freedom from email spam, so you turn to technology, spam filters to be specific. That works fairly well, especially if you use an email service like Gmail but view your emails with an email client like Outlook or Thunderbird. Then you never actually see the spam at all. This is nice, unless the spam filter catches something it should not have, then you have to go in and find it, but that is a fairly minor inconvenience. 

We hate email spam for three big reasons, the first being that it clutters up our inboxes with stuff we do not want, did not ask for and really don’t need. It forces us to weed through worthless junk to find the few emails that actually have some value. The second reason is that a lot of spam is loaded with spyware, Trojans and other malware that could damage the computers it infects, steal the owner’s identity and so on. The final reason is that spam is often the bait that a conman will use to reel you in and steal from you with a Nigerian scam, or a bank account scam or something similar. 

In other words, email spam is both worthless and it is dangerous

Now, I have a question: Are you a spammer? 

I am not suggesting that you are loading your email marketing with malware or doing anything criminal or even underhanded. You may be engaging in what you believe to be robust and aggressive email marketing, but what I am suggesting is that you may be following the tactics of those who do, and in the end that is certainly no path to success. 

Do you want your brand associated with malware and scammers? Do you want your products and services dismissed as worthless? If your email marketing is based on spam, then that is precisely how most people see things when your email shows up, if they see it at all. Not a pretty picture, is it? 

That is not to say you cannot or should not use email as part of your marketing program. You should, you must! You just need to do it right and you need to follow the law. 

The CAN-SPAM Act

The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act (CAN-SPAM Act) of 2003 sets the rules for senders of commercial email. It also sets the penalties for spammers and spam advertisers (if they violate the law) and gives consumers the right to demand that emailers to stop spamming them. Here are the law's main provisions:

  • It bans false or misleading header information . Your email's "From," "To," and routing information – including the originating domain name and email address – must be accurate and identify the person who initiated the email.
  • It prohibits deceptive subject lines . The subject line cannot mislead the recipient about the contents or subject matter of the message.
  • It requires that your email give recipients an opt-out method . You must provide a return email address or another Internet-based response mechanism that allows a recipient to ask you not to send future email messages to that email address, and you must honor the requests. You may create a "menu" of choices to allow a recipient to opt out of certain types of messages, but you must include the option to end any commercial messages from the sender.
  • It requires commercial email be identified as such . It has to be obvious that the email is an advertisement.
  • It requires you to include your valid email and physical addresses . The people you send these emails to have to be able to reach you via the Internet and at your physical business address.

Penalties

Each violation of any of the above provisions is subject to fines of up to $16,000. Deceptive commercial email, in addition to the regulations of the CAN-SPAM Act, is also subject to laws banning false or misleading advertising. But that is not all. There are additional fines levied against spammers who not only violate the rules described above, but also:

  • Harvest email addresses from websites or Web services that have published a notice prohibiting the transfer of email addresses for the purpose of sending email.
  • Generate email addresses using a "dictionary attack" – combining names, letters, or numbers into multiple permutations.
  • Use scripts or other automated ways to register for multiple email or user accounts to send commercial email.
  • Relay emails through a computer or network without permission – for example, by taking advantage of open relays or open proxies without authorization. 

The law allows the Department of Justice to seek criminal penalties, including imprisonment, for commercial emailers who do – or conspire to:

  • Use another computer without authorization and send commercial email from or through it
  • Use a computer to relay or retransmit multiple commercial email messages to deceive or mislead recipients or an Internet access service about the origin of the message
  • Falsify header information in multiple email messages and initiate the transmission of such messages
  • Register for multiple email accounts or domain names using information that falsifies the identity of the actual registrant
  • Falsely represent themselves as owners of multiple Internet Protocol addresses that are used to send commercial email messages. 

Base Your Mailing List on Opt-In Subscribers

How can you spam people who want to receive your email? That is the idea behind opt-in subscriptions. If someone has given you their email, they expect to hear from you. You still have to follow the regulations of the CAN-SPAM Act, but as long as you do, and you don’t send each person too many mailing too fast, you will be in good shape. 

This last is very important. Even if you are sending emails that conform to the law and you are sending them to people who want to hear from you, loading them down with lots of email is no better than spamming them, and it falls under the same name. The danger here is that the recipient will get sufficiently annoyed to simply apply their spam filters to you, essentially consigning your emails to the electronic outer darkness of their spam folder, there to be deleted at some point, never read. Moreover, if you bury them with email, odds are you will lose them as customers, so be careful with the volume. 

Honor Unsubscribe Requests

This is one of the best things you can do to maintain your reputation online. If you claim in your emails that consumers can opt-out of future messages by following your removal instructions, such as "click here to unsubscribe" or "reply for removal," then the removal options must function as you claim. That means any hyperlinks in the email message must be active, accessible to the consumer, and the unsubscribe process behind it must work. If you have them respond to an email address, that address better be live and working. If it’s not, then you could be hit with a fraud charge. 

By keeping your email marketing clean and honest, and if you don’t flood your recipients’ inboxes with email, you will differentiate yourself from the real spammers, the ones that spread malware and try to scam people, and maintain a good online reputation. For additional information on the CAN-SPAM Act, visit the FTC website at www.ftc.gov/spam

And now for something completely different: