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Direct email marketing legal issues

Direct Marketing Campaign

Direct email marketing is a company's lifeblood and possibly their customers' greatest scourge. Unsolicited mailings are clogging up inboxes all over the world and recipients and legislators alike are starting to treat all bulk mailings the same way. To avoid legal problems with direct email marketing it's important to understand a few key issues.

The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act came into effect on January 1 st , 2004 and lays down the law for anyone sending commercial email. It gives recipients the right to ask to be removed from emailers' lists and establishes penalties for spammers and commercial emailers if they violate the law.


The law covers any email whose primary purpose is promotional. Things to avoid are:

  • False or misleading headers: the email's 'To' and 'From' must be accurate and identify who sent the mail. Routing information, including the email address and originating domain name, must also be accurate.
  • Deceptive subject lines: the subject line cannot mislead the reader about the content of the message.

Under the law commercial emailers must:

  • Give the recipient an opt out: provide a return address that permits the recipient to request that no further emails are sent to their address, and then honor that request. The opt-out method must be able to process requests up to 30 days after the original mailing and must be acted upon within ten working days of receipt.
  • Identify commercial email as an advertisement: your message must be marked clearly as an ad and include a valid postal address.

Penalties: violations of the above rules are subject to a fine of up to $11,000.

Additional fines apply to companies that:

  • Generate email addresses by combining multiple permutations of names, letters or numbers
  • Harvest email addresses
  • Take advantage of open relays or proxies without permission
  • Use scripts to register for multiple email accounts for commercial mail purposes

Criminal penalties and imprisonment are allowed for the following:

  • Sending commercial email though another computer without permission
  • Using a computer to retransmit messages and mislead a recipient or Internet access service about the origin of the mail
  • Using false information to register for multiple email accounts or domain names

In addition to the rules above the Federal Trade Commission is discussing the establishment of a Do Not Email registry. To keep up to date on the latest developments click here. In addition, consumers can forward unwanted commercial email to the Federal Trade Commission at spam@uce.gov.