- Mon 11/30/2015 12:30
The Dangers of Falsely Classifying Spam
by John Brogan
Founder & CEO


Every day of the week we receive the standard feedback loop (FBL) complaint email from ISP's around the world.   If you are not in the technical or administrative side of the Internet then a feedback loop is what an ISP uses to report back to the sending network whenver they receive a spam or abuse complaint    The complainant clicks on the spam button and a copy of that message is then quickly routed back to the sending network so that network administrator can take swift action against the sender and rid the Internet of another useless spammer.   The FBL is a great tool and it helps network administrators keep an eye on their users.   The problem is the everyday public doesn't realize the true power that "report spam" button has and how destructive it can be when misused. 

It is human nature to take the path of least resistance or the follow easiest route to their destination.  I call it the lazy human syndrome. When it comes to receiving an Email newsletter that one subscribed to and is no longer intersted in receiving, the easiest thing to do is just click on the Spam button and 99% of the time that newsletter sender never is heard from again.  To the average user that seems great because their goal was to tell the sender to stop emailing them.  The spam button has become the lazy man's unsubscribe button.  But if that lazy unsubscriber could actually see the true damages they have caused to that sender they might take a few extra seconds next time they want off of a list and unsubscribe properly.   The combined damage to the sender from many people performing the same lazy "click the spam button" process can often be measured in weeks of distrupted service and even millions of dollars in lost revenue.   Yes, all of this can and does happen when a bunch of people click that spam button as an attempt to unsubscribe. Note, it is completely acceptable to click that spam button on a message you know for certain you did not sign up to receive and to report a true spam message that has arrived. That's the purpose of the spam button and us ISP's and ESP's appreciate knowing when you receive true spam.

If one could watch the wheels that start turning when that spam button is clicked they would see the following:

ONE - The ISP or corporate gateway where the complainant resides will log the senders email address, domain name and IP address in a complaint table and will check the sender for other complaints.  If the sender has several complaints on file, future deliveries from that sender will either be routed to the junk folder,  bounced back to the sender, or just quietly deleted as it arrives (DOA).  Remember, the wheels turn in in the same direction if the spam submission is valid or just a lazy attempt to unsubscribe. These are automated systems that process the complaints and they can not tell the difference.

TWO - If the ISP or corpoate gateway is using an anti-spam appliance or third party service (Barracuda, Postini, MXLogic, etc.) then that appliance or service feeds that complaint back to the "mother ship" where the complaint is logged and the reputation of the sender is now distributed to tens of thousands of other appliance or third party service users. Now imagine what happens if dozens or hundreds of people click that spam button instead of unsubscribe every week. That senders reputation will be down in the mud very quickly.

Imagine being in a stadium full of people and on the other side of the stadium one person was talking badly about you. Chances are you would never hear it so nobody would care. Now imagine every single person in that stadium talking badly about you. Everywhere you look and listen someone has something bad to say. That's exactly what it is like for an Email sender who sends out their daily newsletter and has a wave of people, every day, clicking the spam button instead of unsubscribing properly. The network of reputation systems share their stories about that sender and eventually everyone thinks the sender is bad even though those negative comments were not intended to cause harm. It really works that way in the Email and anti-spam world.

THREE - The ISP then routes a copy of the message back to the abuse desk of the sending network where that message is also scanned for the sender email address, domain name, and sending IP used to deliver the message.   That process is automatic and the items parsed from the message are saved into a database on the sender side of the network.   The sending ISP then automatically checks for other complaints for that sender and if others are found and the level of complaints crosses their threshold, the ISP either blocks that sender from future emailings or will kick the sender off their network entirely.  This process usually has very little human interaction because the time it takes to personally deal with the number of complaints on a daily basis is simply too high for a human being to process.

FOUR - The Sender tries to perform their next scheduled mailing and the process is stopped in its tracks, or worse, the sender starts to notice a significant drop in sales without finding any true cause for the drop.  This is the most common problem professional Emailers face today -- a drop in open rates, click rates, and sales without any explanation.  Many chalk it up to a bad economy or just a "slow time" but the real reason is that the ISP's and online services have received enough [false] complaints to set up a DOA filter (delete upon arrival) not just for the one person who took the lazy way out to unsubscribe, but for EVERY RECIPIENT on their network who has subscribed to the same publication or other publications coming from the same network.   This happens every day of the week, all around the world, and the Email administrators on the sending side of the network are left with a hunt for the needle in a haystack because one never knows who has DOA'd the sender because the messages no longer bounce, they just vanish.

For our part, we carefully analyze complaints as they arrive to make sure they are true spam complaints. Over the past six years and found that over 90% of complaints were reversed once the complainant was asked if they really meant to report the sender as a spammer.  90% is a huge number of false complaints when sending hundreds of millions of emails per month and receiving thousands of "complaints."   That 90% figure is what causes most Email marketers months of troubleshooting and in some cases millions of dollars in lost revenues, all because the recipient was looking for the "easy way out" and just clicked on the Spam button instead of unsubscribing the proper way.   The remaining 10% of spam complaints were due to the recipient not liking the material they subscribed to or forgetting they subscribed in the first place.  In the past six (6) years we have found only four (4) yes FOUR valid spam complaints out of close to 100,000 complaints received.  Just four and those four were because the sender had an in-house procedure breakdown that caused those recipients to receive messages after unsubscribing, or from recipients unsubscribing the wrong email address. Four out of one hundred thousand is an amazing figure.

The next time you think about clicking on that spam button - think carefully about what will happen. We often tell people to think the same way about pulling the trigger of a gun when clicking on the spam button -- the end result can put a company out of business.  You may be stopping an airline from reaching its paying customers, a bank from sending out their customer bank statements, or a missing person hotline from sending out its alerts.  Yes, that "easy" click of a spam button, instead of properly unsubscribing, could actually cause someone to miss an email that might actually save a life, find a missing person, or let them know their credit card number was stolen. All because that email was blocked due to people falsely reporting publication "A" as spam when publication "B" was sent from the same network and was caught up in the message filters.  Take the time to unsubscribe properly, you took the time to subscribe so extend the same courtesy to that publisher and unsubscribe properly.  It is that serious of a problem so spend the 30 seconds and unsubscribe the right way.

John Brogan