How to Get Legitimate Mail Delivered

If This is War, There Must be Casualties — And there certainly are: legitimate e-mail messages. Mail you send to friends, mail you asked to receive, such as from mailing lists, customer support, order inquiries. You may have even paid to get that mail, but sometimes the mail is stopped by providers if it has “forbidden” words in it.

Imagine trying to cope with breast cancer and not being able to get mail from your support group because your provider decides anything with the word “breast” in it must be porn spam. Don’t laugh: it’s happened. Even astronomy newsletters get filtered to the trash because of discussions of what can be seen with the “naked” eye.

It’s thus very likely that mail you’ve sent — completely legitimate messages to your friends, co-workers, family, and others — didn’t get through because they or their mail providers are trying to reduce their own spam level, and your mail got caught up in their filters.

Getting Your Own Mail Through

First, always use a proper subject line! Blank subject lines are a common spammer trick, so never leave it blank, since many spam filters assume blank-subject messages are more likely spam. Never use one-word subjects, another spammer trick, such as “hello”, “hi”, or similar.

Second, and it’s sad to say it, avoid common trigger words (like “naked”, or any variant on the word “Viagra”!) until you’re sure that your recipient will get your mail; see “whitelisting” below.

Getting Mail You Want

You signed up for a newsletter, or sent a vendor an order, but don’t hear any reply. Rude and nasty companies? Probably not: it’s more likely they did respond, but you simply did not get it. It’s very important that you find out what your e-mail provider is doing to cope with spam. Are they filtering your mail? Do you have any control over those filters? What if you’re fighting breast cancer? Wouldn’t you want to get mail from your support group? You must have control over the filters used to evaluate your mail! That way, you can “whitelist” (allow) all mail from your support group so it can get though no matter what — even if (gasp!) people in your breast cancer support group send mail with the word “breast” in it.

The time to do something is before you sign up for a newsletter or send a customer service request. When you expect a reply, make sure you’ve whitelisted the domain or address the reply will come from. Legitimate mailing lists will send a confirmation request to ensure you really want the subscription (rather than, say, someone else who put your address in the signup box).

It’s also a good idea to whitelist your own friends. It’s also possible to set up a password that someone can put in the subject line to get mail through. This is True, for instance, has a huge subscriber list, so it’s impossible to whitelist them all. How, then, do they get responses from readers? A password that readers can put on their message to get through the filters. It’s shown prominently on True‘s Contact Page so readers can easily find it. Spammers are pretty lazy, so they don’t try to find such passwords, but even if they did, it’s easy to change it and post the new one on your web site.

Whitelisting and passwords work great if you run your own server with SpamAssassin, but may not work if you use (for instance) Google’s Gmail filtering. No worries: they do it for you, when you “train” their filters using the “spam” and “not spam” buttons.

Worse, legitimate sites can get all of their mail blocked. There are “blacklist” services that mail server owners can use to try to block mail based simply on where it’s sent from, even if it doesn’t otherwise trip filters. The problem: some of these blacklists are poorly constructed: even an anonymous complaint that’s in error can cause the sending site to be blocked, at least for a time. Such a tactic is thus adding to the problem of legitimate mail being blocked, rather than really helping the situation.

The bottom line: spam causes many more problems than simply clogging your inbox. You may be getting lots of spam, but still not get the mail you truly want. Legitimate mail that’s blocked is a true casualty of the war on spam.

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