Spam Bounties: Legitimate Email Marketers at Risk

Article ImageLegitimate email marketers have turned a wary eye towards a new proposal gaining momentum at the Federal Trade Commission that would award hard-cash bounties to ordinary citizens who help arrest the bane of email marketing today: spam.

While legitimate marketers would welcome any plan ridding email boxes of the unending junk email flooding the Internet these days, some worry that a hard-cash bounty would be too draconian, encouraging money-hungry vigilantes to turn in legitimate email marketers for inadvertent, technical violations. Specifically, critics of the proposal fear that self-appointed bounty hunters will go after "easy prey," or well-meaning companies that send out an email marketing message that contains some obscure technical violation of emerging anti-spam legislation, which corporate America is only beginning to understand.

Indeed, according to a recent study released by Vircom, an email security firm, only 71% of the half million commercial emails analyzed was actually in compliance with the Can-Spam Act of 2003. Moreover, other recent studies released by firms tracking spam's rise indicate the problem of unwanted junk email only threatens to get worse. Recent figures released by Brightmail show that approximately 60% of all email is now spam and statistics from Postini reveal that on some days, as much as 83% of all emails sent is spam.

Fortunately, a more marketing-friendly alternative to the bounty proposal, known as the "puzzle solution," appears to be gaining traction among many of the large Internet Service Providers, such as Yahoo!, AOL, and MSN. Under this proposal, every email would undergo a ten-second spam analysis period before it would be sent over the Internet via the participating ISPs.

The ten-second delay on each email sent would essentially put mass email spammers out of business, according to Mike Adams, president of Arial Software, maker of email marketing software. The reason? Mass email spammers cannot afford to tie up a computer for ten seconds for each email; such delays would send their spamming costs through the roof.

Adams, who over the years has watched an incredibly powerful promotional medium become increasingly riddled with the cancer of spam, is extremely upbeat about the chances of the ten-second delay. "When the puzzle solution rolls out, the whole world is suddenly going to wake up to something they haven't seen in years: empty email boxes. The spam will have stopped, and spam filters are no longer needed."

No matter what the FTC ultimately decides (email marketers expected a decision on the bounty proposal before the close of 2004) all companies leveraging email as a marketing tool would do well to ensure their own missives are in compliance with the Can-Spam Act of 2003. Here are the broad strokes of the Act:

Don't Be Misleading: The FTC takes a dim view of any email marketer who uses misleading sender or subject lines in commercial email. Pretend in your subject header that your email is personal, or pretend to be sending from an email address not associated with your company, and you'll immediately be branded as a violator.

Remember Your Physical Address: Operating on the premise that business will be much less likely to spam if recipients have a way to track them down, the FTC demands that all commercial marketing email include a postal address.

Clearly Identify Your Message As Commercial: Even beyond the subject line, the FTC wants all commercial marketers to make it crystal clear to recipients that the marketing message they are sending is commercial in nature. (Exempt from this requirement are commercial email lists that require a subscriber to "opt-in," or indicate by email that they want to receive commercial email from a particular company.)

Make Unsubscribing From A List A Snap: While most companies have forgone the game of making it very tough to unsubscribe from a newsletter or alert service once someone has signed on, there are still some laggards engaging in this ruse. Knock it off, the FTC says, or the agency will come down on you.

Don't Share Your Customer Email Addresses With Others Without Permission: Again, many companies abide by this rule as a matter of policy. But others see no problem selling off email lists to the highest bidder without customer permission. Do so at your peril, the FTC warns.

Don't Harvest Email Addresses Randomly: This is a bread-and-butter technique among the world's worst spammers. Using specially designed software to crawl the Web, they essentially amalgamate every single email they can lift from Web sites, bulletin boards, newsgroups and the like. No legitimate email marketer engages in this activity. But some unwittingly rent email lists from those who do. Beware.

Develop An Internal Can-Spam Act Compliance Program: A number of firms, including, have released comprehensive guidelines on compliance with the Can-Spam Act of 2003. Such guides are essential for thorough compliance with the law.

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