Creative Spammer Harassment

Time for another technology related post.

More of a rant, really.

Spammers Are Creative

Anti-spam technology has improved greatly over the last few years. I’m as pleased as the next technophile to find less spam in my inbox. Sadly, lately I’ve been getting less email overall.

And that my be a problem.

You see, I’m not getting all my email. I’ve had several incidents lately where people have sent me important emails and they have vanished. These emails are occasionally in my spam box, but more often no where at all.

How does this happen?

When you send an email, it goes through an out-going email server, through various nodes on the net, and then in through the incoming email server. Anywhere along that path, a message can be flagged as spam.

If it gets flagged by the outgoing server, then the email never leaves the host. It will show as sent, but it never left the first stop on its journey. The recipient will never know it existed.

Imagine if you were paying an important bill and you took it to the local mail drop off. You mailed it, so the bill is paid, right?

Nope. Not if someone comes along with a truck and drags off the mailbox before the postal worker comes by to pick up the mail.

But I’m Not a Spammer!

It seems that my personal email address has been reported as spam. I’m blacklisted on some servers. I don’t send out newsletters or bulk mail from that address.

This isn’t a situation where my email violated rules.

Of all my websites, has been subjected to the most aggressive attacks. My site is bombarded constantly. Thankfully, I have some very good protection. I would have expected this to happen to my address, but that isn’t it. This flag is on my personal GMail address.

How Spammers Create Chaos

I found this by accident while researching a client’s missing outgoing emails. Her website stopped sending out emails completely. The technical support rep explained that the domain had been reported as sending out spam. He researched her history and agreed that her newsletters (strictly opt-in) should not be considered spam. Then he surprised me. He said that my personal address (I’d been using for technical support contact) was on the list as well.

Anti-spam works by matching an email address against a curated blacklist of known spammers. It is easy to mark incoming mail as spam, thereby adding another report to the servers.

This works tremendously well.

So well that the spammers are having to get creative to combat it. Their latest trick is to skim legitimate email addresses and to report those addresses as spam.

I suspect some of the addresses may be coming from several of the well known data breaches that have happened over the last few years. These are the same attacks that have us all scrambling to have unique passwords for every site we use.

I know my personal address was victimized that way along with millions of others.

The spammers are inserting legitimate email accounts into the blacklists. I can only imagine the chaos this is creating in the anti-spam databases.

I’m not overly worried. At some point the anti-spam folks will create an algorithm to clean the lists. But in the meantime, these spammers have created a new way to make our email lives miserable.

If you sent me an email and I didn’t respond, you’re probably on the list as well.

How to Check if You are Blacklisted

If you are sending email through your website, you can check your status using MX Toolbox.

If you are sending from an email provider like GMail or Yahoo, then you will need your friends’ help to find and resolve the problem.

The only way you’ll know this is happening is if you communicate with your friends without using email and ask if they received your email. If they did not, then have them check their spam folder. If they find your email there, then you’ve very likely been reported as a spammer. (There are other reasons: sending spam-ish sounding messages being the primary one. Remember, all emails are scanned by computers as they travel. If an algorithm doesn’t get your particular brand of humor, you can be flagged by mistake.)

How to Fix This

If you find your domain listed on a blacklist via MX Toolbox, follow the link to the list and request removal. If your email isn’t leaving your hosting company’s server, call technical support and ask them for help.

But if the problem is with your GMail or Yahoo address, you will need your friends’ help. When they find your email in their spam folder, it is critical that they mark the message as “not spam” in whatever way is available to them. (Some hosts label the button as “not junk” or with some other clever phrase.) If your friend is tech savvy, they can create a filter on their email with your address marked as “never send to spam.”

Both of those actions not only move the message into their inbox, but they also report your address as “not spam” to the appropriate lists.

Because these lists are intended to stop spammers, there is often no way for you to request that your email address be removed. Think about it: if that worked, the spammers would just ask to be removed.

Website hosting companies have a bit more control because they deal with whole domains that may be flagged. They use business tools that allow them to help their clients when appropriate. That is how my client’s email got fixed…mostly.

But now, her email (and occasionally mine!) winds up in people’s spam boxes. The only way out of that box is with a little help from friends.

A little help here? If you see my email in your spam filter, mark it as not spam. Maybe take a moment to check for other friends’ emails as well. Who knows? You may be next.

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