From Now On

The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 13|No 8|June|2004
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You are SPAM-listed!

The Sudden Death
of E-mail

by Jamie McKenzie

(about author)

© 2004, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.

Just about the time we began to count on e-mail to deliver our important messages and keep us connected with loved ones or business contacts, something went horribly wrong.

The huge expansion of SPAM has flooded the mailboxes of corporations, schools and homes with messages selling everything from body changes to bliss.

But the SPAM is not what killed e-mail and turned it into an unreliable way to communicate.

Ironically, this is case of the cure being worse than the disease.

As torrents of SPAM flood our mailboxes and as filters start disrupting the flow of legitimate email, some people may find that voice mail and cell phones will serve them better than e-mail.

SPAM filters are operating with such crude rules that many legitimate messages are being filtered out as "likely SPAM" even though they were sollicited, are wanted and have never been proven guilty.

"You are SPAM-listed!" comes the angry notice.

There is no court of law when it comes to protecting the rights of the innocent emailer from the wrongful filter.

When Junk is Not Junk

Many of these programs apply junk rules to each incoming message and assign a junk score to the message, diverting it to a special junk folder where it will be held for some time. Messages with low junk scores are allowed to enter your inbox.

While this process sounds appealing on the surface, the junk rules are so often wrong on my e-mail program (Eudora) that I must spend many hours reading through the list of messages to figure out if I have lost important messages from my wife, from friends, from clients and from potential clients.

Complicating the review of filtered junk mail is the wild assortment of tricks used by SPAM artists to seduce you into opening the message. They leave the subject line blank, they use alarming references to bank accounts, they assume false identities, and they play upon your sense of decency.

Legitimate communicators to large subscriber lists such as FNO are obligated by law to include a number of elements in their messages to offer people ways to unsubscribe. Ironically and unfairly, some of the spam filters look for such elements and use them to prove that the sender is doing spam.

When You Cannot Reach Your Client

In recent months I have noticed a dramatic increase in the number of my outgoing messages that are filtered before they can arrive.

Being the editor of two journals that are sent monthly via e-mail to subscribers who have requested them, I am seeing hundreds of readers blocked from my publications even though they requested their delivery. In most cases, they are unaware of this blocking of their mail. Some well intentioned IT person has installed a filter that may employ rules that unfairly judge these messages as SPAM. Suddenly their subscriptions meet an untimely end.

Since some of my subscribers are also clients, these sudden installations of filters can interrupt the exchange of messages about an upcoming speech or event.

Just last month I was enjoying a fruitful exchange of ideas about a summer workshop with several people at one educational service agency when all of a sudden the two other people stopped writing me. I sent them a series of messages. I waited patiently. I grew concerned. I sent a new message asking if they ever saw the earlier messages. I finally reverted to an older technology - the telephone.

"What messages?" they asked.

It was then that I learned about their newly installed SPAM filter.

When Seminar Participants Don't Get the Message

As I offer a series of seminars across the nation to FNO subscribers, they are registering online, providing address information and contact information such as e-mail addresses.

In one case, the location of the seminar had to be shifted to a different hotel. All participants were sent two reminders via e-mail about this shift. If their district employed Spam Assassin, they might never receive the notice and report to the wrong hotel on the morning of the seminar through no fault of their own or mine. The reminders could be filtered before they could read them by a zealous e-mail filtering program.

Sadly, commercial organizations that rely upon "opt-in" e-mail marketing are quite vulnerable to this kind of wrongful filtering. Even though subscribers are warned that they will receive such messages from FNO from time to time, the sheer volume of bulk e-mail messages creates a clear and present danger that a legitimate enterprise will find its outgoing address SPAM-listed.

Here is a sample of a recent warning message from a school district that employs Spam Assassin.

Your message to: has triggered our SpamAssassin SPAM filters and has been rejected. The email you sent with the following subject has NOT BEEN DELIVERED:

The report below will help you determine why your message was flagged as SPAM.

Content analysis details: (7.7 points, 5.0 required)

pts rule description
0.1 EXCUSE_14 Tells you how to stop further spam.
0.1 HTML_LINK_CLICK_HERE BODY link text says "click here"
0.1 HTML_MESSAGE HTML included in message
0.0 BAYES_50 Bayesian spam probability is 50 to 56%
4.0 DCC_CHECK Listed in DCC (
3.3 DATE_IN_FUTURE_12_24 Date: is 12 to 24 hours after Received: date
0.1 CLICK_BELOW Asks you to click below

Reviving the Patient

It will probably take legislation and significant penalties to halt the flow of unwanted messages - something with more teeth than the measure passed this year by Congress. Meanwhile, we will manage the flow as best we can, trying to keep our heads above flood waters.

In all fairness, the problem extends across several technologies, as one look at the day's land mail will quickly illustrate. Commercial messages dominate the pile of printed material entering most homes, and even movie theaters have taken to showing commercials if one makes the mistake of arriving early. It is difficult to find a commercial free zone.

Settle down with a good book on the shore of a remote lake and the sky is suddenly alive with information about a political candidate or a pizza restaurant.

Back to June Cover

Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie .

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