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Mailing List Services : customer protection

Mailing Lists

Some mailing list services are useful; you might enjoy being part of an email discussion group, or look forward to your favorite online shoe store sending you information about sales. However, a lot of mailing list "services" can be more of an irritation than a blessing. Many email users find that they receive more spam - unwanted advertising messages - than genuine messages from people or organizations they actually know.


As explained in our page on mass mailing , legislation (the CAN-SPAM Act of January 2004) has made life a lot easier for spammers. Many individual state laws used to provide a greater level of customer protection, but the federal CAN-SPAM law overrides these, preventing recipients of spam from taking legal action on their own behalf. Internet service providers (ISPs) and Government agencies can take legal action, and have done so in a few high-profile cases, but the majority of spammers have greater freedom than before to clog the inbox of anybody with an email address.

However, there are steps you can take to fight spam.

  • Beware "unsubscribe" options. Spammers are now required by law to provide an unsubscribe option in every junk email they send. This might take the form of requiring you to go to a website and unsubscribe, or sending an email asking to be unsubscribed. However, you should always ignore unsubscribe options. Most of them are used to see if the email address belongs to a real person. If you respond in any way to a message, you have taken the bait, and your email account will only be further bombarded with spam. Selling lists of people who have clicked "unsubscribe" is an illegal but very common practice.
  • Take the Boulder Pledge. Spammers continue to do it because spamming is profitable. The response rate to spamming is around 0.005 per cent. However, because of the low costs involved, even that tiny response is enough to make spamming a profitable activity. Film critic Roger Ebert created the Boulder Pledge in response to the tiny number of people who buy items as a result of spam messages. The pledge goes: " Under no circumstances will I ever purchase anything offered to me as the result of an unsolicited e-mail message. Nor will I forward chain letters, petitions, mass mailings, or virus warnings to large numbers of others. This is my contribution to the survival of the online community." Even if the message is from a company you've heard of, even if you are sure the product advertised is good quality and a bargain, don't purchase it if you hear of it through an unsolicited email. If all email users took the Boulder Pledge, spammers would be starved of revenue and stop cluttering our inboxes.
  • Read the headers properly. Many spam messages are sent from a different ISP address from the one you can see. Most email programs have a "Show headers" option; if you use this, you will know which ISP the message is really from. Then you can complain to the ISP.
  • Use spam filters. There are hundreds of spam filters on the market, many of them already built into email programs such as Hotmail. However, they're not perfect, so you will have to check your junk mail folder from time to time to ensure that no genuine messages have slipped through the net.
  • Report abuses to the Federal Trade Commission. (Click here to go to the website.)

There are so many other ways of helping to combat spam that there isn't space to go into them all here. But the main thing to remember is that you should never respond to spammers: don't click on links in the message, don't reply to the message and don't try to unsubscribe from their mailing list service. If you want to do something about spam, contact the spammer's ISP or the Federal Trade Commission, rather than attempting to contact the spammer. Prosecution rates are very low, but there is hope. The unpopularity of the CAN-SPAM Act has caused protests, including a campaign whereby protesters forwarded every single unwanted email message to Government staff, including the President. Partly as a result of these protests, the Government is discussing bringing in tougher anti-spam legislation.