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Endpoint Security

08:15 AM
Alan Zeichick
Alan Zeichick

Email Spam: Don't Be a Chump or a Jerk

For decades, spam emails have clogged up corporate email inboxes. However, there are some simple rules and guidelines IT pros, as well as marketers, can use to cut down on this, and make everyone more secure.

Should you unsubscribe from unwanted email marketing? If you decide to unsubscribe, is it safe to click on an unsubscribe link, or to reply with the word "UNSUBSCRIBE" in the subject line, if that's what the sender requests?

It all depends on the nature of the email.

My long-time advice to individuals and businesses has always been to unsubscribe only if -- and only if -- that unwanted mail appears to be legitimate, like from a known vendor's promotion list. Otherwise, I urge you to do nothing that verifies to the emailer that they've reached a live mailbox, and that means you should delete the email.

In addition, you should configure your email application to refuse to load any images automatically. One-pixel images, after all, are the most common way of showing which emails are opened, and spammers use that technique, whether it's cold-call marketing message from real-world vendors to rip-off con messages from Nigerian princes. (See Spam at 40: Still a Robust Security Threat in Middle Age.)

So, if you don't know the sender or if the email looks suspicious: Delete, Delete, Delete.

But what about unsubscribing from legitimate email marketing? It's probably safe, but it may not be effective, according to the Internet Society's Online Trust Alliance. The OTA has published its fifth annual email marketing and unsubscribe audit report, and the results aren't pretty -- even if things are better than several years ago.

The big question that the OTA wanted to find out in this audit was, do online retailers actually honor unsubscribe requests, and respect those requests moving forward?

To make this determination, the organization studied 200 North American online retailers, noting:

For each site, analysts measured and tracked the signup process and user experience, and after observing emails received for as much as six months (and no less than one month), each account was unsubscribed, and activity and compliance was monitored for a period of at least thirty days.

Let's jump right to the bottom line: 89% of senders stopped sending messages immediately -- up from 88% in 2017 and 86% in 2016. That's good progress.

What's also promising is that only three of the marketers continued sending email ten days after the subscriber hit the "unsubscribe" link -- down from eight in 2017 and 11 in 2016. Let's celebrate that improvement.

Advice for email or IT admins
Are there other techniques to reduce spam that you receive, or which is received by your employees at their business email address?

Yes -- your corporate email server should include top-shelf spam filters, and make sure that all that functionality is enabled. Pay extra attention to features that can detect -- and block or sandbox -- ransomware and spearphishing.

If you can't find those types of features, you may want to subscribe to a third-party email filtering service that intercepts spam and malware before it hits your own email server.

To fight spearphishing at the minimum, your email system should reject email that appears to be "from" your own domain that didn't originate with an authenticated SMTP connection to your own email server.

Advice for email marketers
Your organization may send email marketing to existing customers or to prospective customers. There's nothing wrong with that… but there are best practices for ensuring a quality customer engagement, and also for complying with applicable laws -- such as CAN-SPAMin the US.

On the regulatory side, check the laws. In the US, the relevant body is the Federal Trade Commission, which has a lot of important rules that truly aren't difficult to follow -- but it's easy for eager, untrained marketers, or dishonest marketers, to avoid them. In short, those rules cover:

  • Don't use false or misleading header information
  • Don't use deceptive subject lines
  • Identify the message as an ad
  • Tell recipients where you are located
  • Tell recipients how to opt out of receiving future email from you
  • Honor opt-out requests promptly
  • Monitor what others are doing on your behalf

In addition to those common-sense CAN-SPAM rules, there are several suggestions from groups, including OTA, which show how to make customers happy with their email experience -- even if they want to unsubscribe. Check out the audit report and ask how your practices compare to the OTA's audit results.

Overall advice
Let's tie all this up with a bow:

  • If you receive spam, it's safest to delete it unless you truly know and trust the sender -- don't be a chump.
  • If you administer business email systems, make sure your corporate email server has strong anti-spam functionality.
  • And if you send marketing emails for your company, follow the rules and don't be a jerk.

It's as simple as that.

Related posts:

Alan Zeichick is principal analyst at Camden Associates, a technology consultancy in Phoenix, Arizona, specializing in enterprise networking, cybersecurity, and software development. Follow him @zeichick.

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