The myth of the low complaint rate


I have been reading the complaints filed by Holomaxx and will have some analysis and information about them probably Monday or Tuesday next week. I’ve been keeping an eye on the press and something that Ken Magill said caught my eye.

Specifically, HolomaXx alleges, its Microsoft complaint rates have been consistently at or below 0.5 percent and its Yahoo complaint rates have been at or below 0.1 percent.
Spam-complaint rates are a significant metric ISPs use to determine if incoming email is wanted by recipients or not.

This is not exactly true. Sender who have mail blocked at the edge or filtered into the bulk folder have extremely low complaint rates.
I’ll say it again, because it is critically important to understand.
Bad senders who do not get email to the inbox have very low complaint rates.
Why? ISPs measure complaints as a percentage of the emails that make it to the inbox. If mail is not hitting the inbox then the complaint rates are zero.
I understand this is a bit of a catch 22, in that to get a good reputation you need to get mail to the inbox and to get mail to the inbox you need a good reputation. But I hear a lot of spammers tell me they absolutely can’t be sending spam because their complaint rates are so low and it’s just not true.

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  • I think the interesting catch-22 here is that complaint-driven filters require and maintain a certain (albeit small) amount of inefficiency in order to tune themselves, precisely because of the fact that mail that never gets to end-users never gets complained about.
    Fortunately for the good guys, the bad guys are always finding new and interesting ways to do bad things, which means that there’s new types of bad things to get by the filters to get complained about, so that the filters can catch up and start catching those bad things as well. And if the good guys ever did manage to build the perfect complaint-driven filter, it’d block all of the bad guys, so the complaints stop, so the filter gradually becomes less effective as the bad guys adapt, so spam starts to get through again, so the complaints start to come back, and the system seeks its own equilibrium.

  • And complaint rates are just ONE of the factors that determine a sender’s reputation. There are a ton of others. I’ve told senders in the past that having low complaint rates is just a tip of the iceberg. Then the next thing you hear is “I’m CAN-SPAM complaint” and I growl.
    The Holomaxx issue is also something I’m very much interested in as well!

  • The Holomaxx complaint is FULL of “BUT WE’RE CAN SPAM COMPLIANT!” They are even going so far ask asking the court to certify they are CAN SPAM compliant and state that ISPs can’t block CAN SPAM compliant email.
    Anyone want popcorn?

  • A lack of complaints can indicate many things OTHER than a clean bill of health. A list which consists of old, dead email addresses, at domains that no longer exist, will generate errors, bounces, non-deliveries, but not complaints. Mailing from widely-blocked IP addresses, or addresses with poor Return Path reputations will result in mail blocked, or sent to the “bulk” folder, but not complaints. Some of the worst, most recidivist spammers generate little in terms of traditional abuse complaints. Spam which originates from botnets is simply blocked, not reported for the most part.

  • Hmm, changed IPs and even got a /24 to resolve a blocking problem – a problem supposedly caused by their network neighbors, and the problem gets worse.. maybe it is them, and not their neighbors.
    Also, looking at the complaints, they’re only griping about 20 some IP addresses out of their /24 (block of 256) they got (plus another small range in a different allocation)… wonder what all they’re up to with the other 236 IPs…
    The part about wiretap is interesting.
    IDK exactly how ReturnPath and Cisco collect the reputation data, but I think it would be a fair guess that it doesn’t involve ISPs forwarding them huge volumes of mail – but rather on ISPs reporting aggregate statistics about mail from specific IPs. IANAL but idk why that would be a problem even if it is really how the data is collected.

  • Silly people. High complaints means filters need to be more aggressive. “Not Spam” reports means the filters need to be less aggressive. Low complaints means the filters are accurate.

  • The Other Barry:
    On a per-filter basis, absolutely. One a per-sender basis within a specific filter, depends on what the overall per-filter stats are, no?
    If the filter gets very few corrections overall, but with regards to a specific sender gets a large number in any direction (complaints or tins), thats a red flag regarding the sender, not the filter.
    If the filter isn’t that accurate (in either direction) than I’d think the overall correction rate would effect the sender-specific effectiveness of a correction, as well as sender-specific thresholds before corrections start to look suspicious.

  • Alright, finally this is getting interesting!!! I look forward to Holomaxx emerging victorious. For all the nay sayers, before you bash my post let’s just agree to sit back and watch what happens.
    I, for one, am excited to see ISP filtering stand up to judicial scrutiny.

  • Steve: if you want to control the conversation, I suggest you find your own space. People are allowed to disagree with your point of view and point out all the ways you are wrong. I have no problem with productive discussion here.

  • It already has stood up to significant judicial scrutiny. You can never say for sure which way a judge will rule, because you can never say for sure how tech-savvy the judge is or how well they understand relevant law, but boy, the relevant law seems pretty clear cut, and other senders who have attempted to challenge it have yet to be successful.
    You might look forward to a victory, but I rather suspect that Holomaxx is going to get squished like a bug. Let’s say Yahoo, Hotmail and Cisco are totally in the wrong (which I don’t believe)– even so, they’ve got way more money and way more lawyers than this tiny little “legitimate sender” that nobody has heard of. Good luck with THAT.
    That sword you think you hold may actually be a banana.

  • Don’t be too hard on Steve. It’s always useful to be reminded of the spammer (and too often the marketer) mindset: forget what the law says, forget whether the people who get the mail want it, this is all about MEEEEE.

  • laura, imagine situation where a postman is standing in front of your mailbox and is throwing your mail into the trash instead of your mailbox because he _thinks_ that this piece of mail is a junk.
    thank God we not there, living in your bubble.
    sooner or later congress will work on fixing internet mail and just like for fedex it is illegal to throw away your mail, it will be criminal offence for microsoft or yahoo to throw away your email.
    and customers notice the flaw too. hotmail is a joke nobody uses it and yahoo mail numbers are on decline for years.

By laura

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