Abuse it and lose it


Last week I blogged about the changes at ISPs that make “ISP Relations” harder for many senders. But it’s not just ISPs that are making it a little more difficult to get answers to questions, some spam filtering companies are pulling back on offering support to senders.
For instance, Cloudmark sent out an email to some ESPs late last week informing them that Cloudmark was changing their sender support policies. It’s not that they’re overwhelmed with delisting requests, but rather that many ESPs are asking for specific data about why the mail was blocked. In December, Spamcop informed some ESPs that they would stop providing data to those ESPs about specific blocks and spam trap hits.
These decisions make it harder for ESPs to identify specific customers and lists causing them to get blocked. But I understand why the filtering companies have had to take such a radical step.
Support for senders by filtering companies is a side issue. Their customers are the users of the filtering service and support teams are there to help paying customers. Many of the folks at the filtering companies are good people, though, and they’re willing to help blocked senders and ESPs to figure out the problem.
For them, providing information that helps a company clean up is a win. If an ESP has a spamming customer and the information from the filtering company is helping the ESP force the customer to stop spamming that’s a win and that’s why the filtering companies started providing that data to ESPs.
Unfortunately, there are people who take advantage of the filtering companies. I have dozens of stories about how people are taking advantage of the filtering companies. I won’t share specifics, but the summary is that some people and ESPs ask for the same data over and over and over again. The filtering company rep, in an effort to be helpful and improve the overall email ecosystem, answers their questions and sends the data. In some cases, the ESP acts on the data, the mail stream improves and everyone is happy (except maybe the spammer). In other cases, though, the filtering company sees no change in the mail stream. All the filtering company person gets is yet another request for the same data they sent yesterday.
Repetition is tedious. Repetition is frustrating. Repetition is disheartening. Repetition is annoying.
What we’re seeing from both Spamcop and Cloudmark is the logical result from their reps being tired of dealing with ESPs that aren’t visibly fixing their customer spam problems. Both companies are sending some ESPs to the back of the line when it comes to handling information requests, whether or not those ESPs have actually been part of the problem previously.
The Cloudmark letter makes it clear what they’re frustrated about.

Over the past few months, Cloudmark has seen a significant increase in the number of queries from ESPs requesting information on campaigns that have been content-blocked based on Cloudmark data. This increase has required us to review how the Cloudmark support team can handle such requests without affecting the service that we provide to Cloudmark customers.
In all cases, our response to ESPs is that their clients need to clean up their mailing lists and practice better list hygiene on an ongoing basis. We would like to see an improvement from those clients whose names continue to appear in support tickets to Cloudmark.
Our review has shown that the requests for information are not for us to unblock the content but usually to get details on what caused the content to be marked as spam, including requesting ratios of blocks to unblocks. However, all ESPs have access to most of this information already by signing up to feedback loops and having seed accounts at large ISPs.

I’ve heard much the same thing from Spamcop reps. Paraphrased: if people don’t want to be blocked, they need to clean up their mail and stop spamming.
Dealing with spam filtering blocks is much like dealing with ISP blocks. Senders cannot rely on the blocking entity to give details and information about the whys of blocking. Instead, the ESPs and senders must use available information to determine the underlying cause of delivery problems.
This is actually a large change. It used to be almost any one who knew people who worked in the email space could act as a “delivery expert” because they knew the right people to ask. More and more, though, ISP and spam filter relations are no longer about who you know, they’re about what you understand about the ecosystem and what you can extrapolate from available data.

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  • You hit the nail square on, Laura.
    As Laura knows but many here might not, I am with the Spamhaus project. At one time I was leading efforts to clean up ESP spam. I am not deeply involved with ESP listings any longer. I can however testify that ESPs ask Spamhaus volunteers for a great deal of information about their SBL listings, considerably more than most ISPs or web hosting companies. Certain team members avoid ESP listings except in extreme cases because they don’t want to spend that much time on one SBL.
    Whilst I was doing many ESP listings, I attempted to provide requested information, often at great length, with mixed results. In one notable case, an ESP that I provided with a report on hits from that ESP’s IPs on our spamtraps took that report and turned around their entire business. They had been an average ESP: not worse than most ESPs, but not better either. It’s been about three years now. This ESP is now in any list of the least spam-friendly two or three ESPs in the business. I’m honored to have been able to contribute to that change, am delighted at the results, and have learned a great deal from that ESP’s abuse team, which is superb.
    That hasn’t happened often, though. I’ve provided similar reports to a number of other ESPs; I try not to play favorites. It is Spamhaus policy not to treat ISPs, ESPs, web hosts, and others whose IPs are listed for spamming differently except based upon our observations of which responds to spam issues effectively and which do not. I would also rather see a spam problem fixed than a spammer terminated just to move somewhere else and continue to spam.
    The spam flow from many ESP customers that I reported to the ESP dropped, then slowly rose to previous and often higher levels. There are strings of SBL listings as a spam problem is mitigated, then inexplicably (according to the ESP) comes back. I do not find most of those recurrences inexplicable. I conclude, in many cases, that the ESP is unwilling to do the proactive work necessary to catch most spam before it leaves their IPs, even when they know what needs to be done.
    To make matters clear, the ESP representatives that I communicate with are not usually to blame for this problem. Their managers and the policymakers at the ESP are to blame. The decisionmakers at the ESP are not willing to require paying customers to adhere to proper bulk email practices and standards and enforce permanent sanctions against most who fail to do so.
    Granted, some customers resist not because they are deliberately spamming non-opt-in email addresses, but because they think that quantity (of email) is more important than quality. Such customers don’t want to see lists shrink even when those lists are comprised largely of non-responsive deadwood email addresses. Such customers send a great deal of spam and annoy a great many of our users, who really do not care whether the spam problem is due to carelessness or deliberate action.
    In other cases, of course, ESP customers resist following best practices because they cannot. They are mailing email appended and purchased lists. If they don’t maintain some sort of plausible deniability about the sources of those lists, they know that we will list their IPs (at the ESP and elsewhere) and refuse to remove those listings til they do.
    In either case, an ESP that is unwilling to impose sanctions on customers whose lists persist in hitting large numbers of spamtraps after repeated mitigation attempts needs to fire those customers. Otherwise it is failing to act as a legitimate bulk emailer. Such ESPs must expect to see their IPs blocked or filtered heavily because they deliver such large quantities of spam compared to solicited email.

By laura

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