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Spam Complaints - be cautious!

If you are a webmaster who supplies free content to others, or if you have ever considered making or made a spam complaint, this article contains important information for you.

When I stumble out of bed every morning, in a process that has become automatic for me, I fire up my PC, light a cigarette and put on the kettle for a cup of java. I have timed it all so that by the time the jug has boiled, enough nicotine is in my bloodstream so I can begin to function properly and carry out the delicate task of spooning coffee into my mug. It is also by that time that my mail has finished downloading - why does it take so long? You guessed it - SPAM.

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Between my partner and I, we receive hundreds of spam messages every day. Prior to the implementation of filters on our servers, it was thousands.

Every day, we receive messages encouraging us to purchase body part enlargement pills, creams and potions, subscriptions to adult sites, offers from Nigeria to "invest" money - even one rather thick individual has decided that we need to hear about the diesel engines that he sells on a daily basis. Dozens of emails each day will also contain viruses - you name it, we get them all.

It's annoying and time consuming to have to sift through such volumes of spam. If a spammer bugs me enough, I'll then track them down in an attempt to terminate their ISP/Hosting account - with extreme prejudice. But we are careful when we make spam complaints to ensure that we attack the right person/s.

Our first "spam" complaint

For the first time since I began publishing free-for-reproduction content (just like this article), I received a rather vicious spam complaint leveled against Taming the Beast.net. I nearly choked on my coffee as we've been using double opt-in lists for years. 

The complaint we received was a spiteful communication, labeled us as "dubious" and the complainant had accused us wrongly. What made the situation even more frustrating was that:

  • The real source of the "spam" didn't want to rectify the issue and was quite abusive.

  • The complainant was an experienced webmaster and should have known better than to cc' blatant accusations to multiple parties when he hadn't investigated the issue properly

  • When we proved that we were in no way involved, the complainant didn't even bother to withdraw their comments.

Taking spam complaints seriously..

So, how did this all come about? The brief story is this. A webmaster used one of my articles in his ezine and sent it out to another webmaster who didn't appreciate receiving the ezine. The complainant felt that it was spam. Because my name (along with a number of other well known writers) appeared in the ezine with my article, he felt that we should all be tarred with the same brush. He sent a rather scathing email to all our hosting service providers and the Federal Trade Commission in the USA. 

Even though I knew that the complainant was gunning in the wrong direction, we took steps immediately to try and sort out the situation. I emailed him back to politely explain what had occurred and that we would investigate for him. He didn't even bother responding.

The next day, our hosting service contacted me, rather puzzled by the whole scenario but needing some sort of assurance that we weren't directly involved. I then spent a number of hours rectifying somebody else's problem.

I located the "spammer" webmaster in question and (politely) revoked his rights to republish my content and requested an explanation. He dribbled on about his "American Freedom" and his (in his eyes) god-given right to advertise his wares as he saw fit, while in the same breath denying that he had anything to do with spamming the complainant. 

Freedom vs. Responsibility

He also told me on a number of occasions to go jump and that he didn't want to hear from me again. He also said he had no intention of addressing the issue. His lack of tact and professionalism I found to be particularly repugnant - particularly since it was my content that he used in his ezine and I still maintain the rights over that content. It is such a pity that many people do not understand that with freedom (including American Freedom - no offense intended to our friends in the USA) comes responsibility. 

I have not contacted him again, as per his request - may he live in interesting times (Chinese curse). I am sure that his own hosting service will catch up with him in due course.

I then contacted the complainant again and explained to him that neither myself and more than likely any of the other writers of the articles published in the ezine were involved with him receiving the email. He didn't care. Even though he was a webmaster himself, he obviously felt that it was fine to shoot from the hip, slander others and then not take responsibility for the consequences. He is extremely fortunate that we decided not to take the issue any further and that we didn't commence litigation proceedings. We don't take too kindly to being slandered. 

The costs of following up spam complaints

Even though I have little respect for either of these parties, I won't publish their names or web sites here. Some of us have to remain civilized. The dollar value on the time I spent on sorting through this came to around US$400. If I had been on vacation at the time this occurred, or if our hosting service had reacted badly and we had been shut down, the damages could have run into hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost income and damage to our brand.

It just goes to show, even though the complainant webmaster was obviously a bit of a nutter and we could have just ignored the original rant from him, it always pays to follow up complaints no matter how ludicrous or wacko they may seem. It's these immature and ill-informed individuals that can cause the most damage to a business.

Also, if you are offering free content for reproduction on the web, it may be wise to implement a legal statement on your archive forbidding the use of your content for use in unsolicited mail. Of course, that should go without saying, but we are living in the age where even the manual that comes with the microwave oven that you buy states "do not place your pets inside". 

A few days after this had all settled, I ran into another webmaster whom had found himself in the same situation a couple of months ago and according to him, this scenario is on the increase. As people become increasingly intolerant of spam, they are taking action - which is great, but it seems that many innocent parties are being caught up in the process.

The RIGHT way to track and report spam

If you are receiving spam, by all means report it, but be careful in how you report it. If you accuse a party of sending spam, it is in your own best interest to ensure that the parties you mention in your spam complaint are actually the guilty ones. If you are not sure on how to track down sources of spam, be cautious in making allegations - your words may land you in court. 

In these cases, it is best to simply forward the offending email AS AN ATTACHMENT to the upstream service providers of the parties that you suspect, with a note to the upstream service provider asking them to investigate. Forwarding just the spam email's body text to the service providers in question will not help them in tracking down the real perpetrators. An email message contains hidden elements in the header which identify the path that the email has taken to get to you - it's this hidden information that the service provider will need in order to properly investigate.

In Outlook Express, you can display the headers of an email message by following these steps:

1. Open the message by clicking on it (be virus cautious).
2. Click on the File menu, and select Properties.
3. Click on the Details tab in the dialog box that appears.
4. Click on the Message Source button.

In Microsoft Outlook, you can display the header by:

1. Right mouse clicking over the message
2. Selecting Options

Using both these methods, you will be able to view information about who sent the message, which mail service was used to send it, and the details of any other mail service that may have routed the message on its way to your inbox - most of the time. Clever spammers know of many ways to avoid detection. Never try to email the spammer directly, it only lets them know that your email address is "live" and you'll find your address being sold to other spammers.

A spam free Internet, now wouldn't that be something? To go to your inbox every day and only find information that you requested and communications that you want would be a dream. But if the current trend of "shoot first, ask questions later" continues regarding spam, the only ones that will be left on the Internet will be the spammers and scammers.

Further learning resources:

Web advertising - the great debate

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast.net
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