Conduct Spring Cleaning to Avoid the Spam Filter Torture Chamber

Many spam filter companies torture marketers who are not guilty. When we legitimate marketers object to their shady tactics, the companies question our values and our commitment to a spam-free world.


I know ”torture” is a loaded word. I don’t mean to suggest that these companies literally subject marketers to physical pain. But the metaphor is apt. Here’s a story about my company’s email marketing software that proves it.

Earlier this year, one of the most widely used filtering companies accused one of our clients of spamming. The email that triggered the spam filter was sent to a person who had opted-in to our client’s email list.

Unbeknownst to our client, the subscriber’s company had gone out of business a few years ago so that subscriber’s email address was no longer valid. When marketers send emails to invalid addresses, they typically receive a “failed delivery” message that allows them to remove that address from their list. Email service providers like ours will automatically remove an address when messages bounce because of an invalid address.

In this case, though, a spam filter company purchased the defunct company’s domain and established the domain as a “spam trap.” The spam filter kept the email addresses “alive” even though there was no real person actually receiving emails.

Anyone who sends an email to that domain will be flagged by the filtering company as a spammer. This happens even if the sender received the email address through a valid opt-in process. The filter will block further deliveries from the sending email server.

Our client never received a notice that the subscriber’s email address was defunct. The subscriber didn’t realize that a spam filter company was keeping his email alive to “trap” unsuspecting senders. If his long-lost friend tried to email him with that defunct address, the message would not have bounced. The long-lost-friend might wonder why his buddy didn’t reply to the the “how have you been?” message.

When our client got flagged as a spammer, we explained to the filter company, “The offending email was added to the email list legitimately. We can prove it.” We had a record of the method and date by which the subscriber opted-in to be on the email list.

No dice. “If you send email to a defunct company’s domain,” they told us, “We will flag you as a spammer.”

What’s the lesson here for marketers? Clean your lists. It’s spring in St. Louis. Get out your brooms and sweep away those subscribers who have not opened any emails over an extended period — perhaps over the past two years. Such list cleansings will usually remove defunct addresses from your list and help you avoid the spam traps. Removing those from your list who don’t show any interest won’t hurt your business. Your list may be smaller, but the engaged subscribers will remain.

Taking this step is not a concession to the filtering companies. The spam trap practice is wrong. When I objected to the practice, a representative from the filtering company questioned my commitment to preventing spam. “We have to take aggressive measures to stop spam,” she added.

I hate spam. My company has strict anti-spam policies, and I believe spamming casts a bad light on legitimate marketers who play by the rules. But that doesn’t mean that filtering companies should purchase defunct domains and punish people who have followed opt-in rules. That’s dishonest and unethical.

For some, however, the ends justify the means.

I recently met a guy who questioned my patriotism after I had the “audacity” (his word) to suggest that the USA should not torture terrorists.

“If you’re serious about protecting America, you have to take aggressive measures,” he said.

I smiled and said, “You remind me of a spam filter.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Never mind,” I said, “You wouldn’t understand.”

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