Unsolicited Bulk Emails or UBE, more commonly known as SPAM, is on the rise. Not only do these unwanted emails continue to clog our inboxes and junk mail folders but they are becoming harder to eliminate. This article will examine where many of these emails come from and how you can reduce them by offering, what I hope you will consider, some handy tips.
The daily barrage of spam messages in our inboxes and junk mail folders consumes countless hours to sort through and delete. Companies now spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on software in an effort to filter spam from their employee company e-mail accounts to prevent them from clogging their servers, wasting employee time and to prevent attacks by all sorts of malware.
The continuing rise of e-mail marketing in our growing market society has come about because it is one of the most cost-effective advertising tools and, more importantly, its use makes it easier to track conversions – tying the ad to customer purchases or donations. This was hugely effective in this last election cycle. According to Wikipedia it is estimated that in the U.S. alone over $1.5 billion was spent on e-mail marketing in 2011 and is expected to grow to over $2.4 billion by 2016.
But where, specifically, do all these bulk emails come from?
Three sources account for most of the junk e-mail we receive: 1) emails sent by well-meaning family and friends, 2) notices from organizations to which you belong, have done business with or have subscribed to, and 3) messages sent by bulk e-mail marketing companies. See related blog post What Happened To Our Privacy.
Many organizations that you may belong to or companies you do business with are now taking advantage of cost-effective e-mail marketing services. While many may do their own in-house email marketing others turn to email marketing companies like MailChimp, iContact, and Constant Contact. These companies send out informative messages to their members using a vetted membership or subscription email list provided by the client organization. These timely messages are typically composed by the organization which pays a monthly fee based on the number of e-mail addresses. Part of their service includes the handling of unsubscribe requests as required by the FTC CAN-SPAM act. More on this later.
E-mails sent by responsible email marketing service companies will generally include their name and a link to their website in the footer of a message. Many will also include a statement explaining why you are receiving the message.
Less reputable are those e-mails that come from what I call “domain mills.” A domain mill is a company that sells domain names – the part of the address after the @ symbol - to a client for the purpose of sending out frequent blasts of e-mails from questionable sources like Asian Dating, Cash Advance and JustMyHookups to mention a few. Some of these even appear to be from legitimate companies.
The way this works is that a domain mill company will spawn numerous domains which I will call “a slave domain.” The domain mill will then send out emails from their list of addresses based on how many the slave domain client is willing to buy, typically as much as $.50 per address. The slave domain client will then be paid a click-through fee for that ad and possibly commissions on any sales. Email addresses from these slave domains will typically have a random sequence of letters and numbers for the name and some nonsensical domain name, for example: 48LWOQMW59922CDE796@secretarysnuff.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a tactic used by spammers to essentially make the blocking features in your e-mail service ineffective.
Tip: Look at the e-mail address in the FROM field of the email message. If it has some random characters for the name and nonsensical domain name you can be pretty sure that it is spam.
Something else you can do is to enter the domain name of the email into your browser address bar. If you try this with enough of these you will find that there are collections of these addresses that all reference a common home page like many people living at the same physical address. In other words, they have no unique business home page of their own and some you will find have no home page at all.
As further verification you can enter the domain name into a query of the Whois database, for example: whois.net. This is a database of the registration information for all domain names.
What you will find for these slave domains is that many of them are owned by a domain mill company. But beware, some domain mill companies further hide their identity by opting to have their registration information hidden. These folks clearly do not want to be contacted about their activity.
A recent search found 27 domain names all owned by a single domain mill company. This company owns 277 domains and another company I found owns an astounding 2,857 domain names.
Several domain mill companies were contacted for information via e-mail for this article but did not reply.
So how does your e-mail address get on these lists?
As already mentioned, if you are a member of an organization then you will probably have already given them your email address. Companies and non-profit organizations are getting very adept at strategies to get you to enter your email address to receive something for free, to sign-up for a newsletter or to register for an event, just to mention a few. Then there are those products that request you to register and downloadable software you get in response to providing your email address. And let’s not forget any affiliates associated with those products and services.
Generally speaking, if you supply your e-mail address on a website then you have agreed to receive emails from the organization unless there is an opt-out check box of some sort that you can select.
Tip: Affiliate relationships are easy to do on the web and are becoming more pervasive. Be sure to check for any options that will allow you to opt-out of any ads from affiliates if you want to reduce spam.
Another way your email address gets on spammer lists is through the harvesting of e-mail addresses from websites like Facebook, Craigslist and even from Google search results. This easy process will net spammers using free harvesting software thousands of addresses. Using addresses obtained in this manner is illegal and considered to be unethical. However, the small percentages who do reply combined with the low probability of prosecution results in enough business to make this practice worthwhile.
Finally, we can’t leave our discussion of UBE without saying something about the process of unsubscribing and the role of the CAN-SPAM act. Are companies complying with the requirements of the act and does unsubscribing really work?
The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act of 2003 (CAN-SPAM) has seven main requirements for domestic business emailers that the FTC is charged with enforcing. Many of these, however, are routinely violated by spammers.
The one provision of the CAN-SPAM act that most people are familiar with deals with the process of unsubscribing from unwanted marketing e-mails. Briefly, this section says that a visible and operable unsubscribe mechanism be present in all marketing e-mails, consumer opt-out requests are to be honored within 10 days, and opt-out lists also known as suppression lists are only to be used for compliance purposes.
The unsubscribe process usually involves clicking on an “unsubscribe” link in the e-mail message. While unsubscribing using these links is supposed to only require a simple single click, most seldom are that simple. Many schemes are employed to make it difficult for the email recipient to unsubscribe. Among these are requirements for you to enter your email address even though the sender already knows your address, or a message instructing you to send an e-mail to request removal from their list.
Some unsubscribe links send your request to a service like UnsubCentral.com. No, this is not the source of criminals (unsubs) as seen on the TV program “Criminal Minds” but a company that provides compliance and suppression file management services. These businesses receive your unsubscribe requests and remove your email address from their list. This updated list, hopefully without your email address, is then sent to their client for use in their email marketing effort. This, presumably, is the reason for the FTC 10 day compliance time.
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