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Is Your Own Domain Name Getting You Blocked?

Someone called me the other day, and told me that he'd been sending email newsletters to his customer list for years. He was using some cheap software he installed on his desktop. He admitted that he hadn't been properly cleaning the list, managing bounces, handling unsubs promptly, etc. Long story short, he got himself blacklisted.

He thought he could solve all his problems if he switched to MailChimp, because we apparently have a good reputation, and because he thought we had some kind of secret-handshake arrangement with ISPs (actually, that's not the case---they'll blacklist anybody that generates too many spam complaints).

Ok, let's forget about the fact that he's been blacklisted, so he wants to potentially get us blacklisted too (um, why would we want you as a customer now?).

What this guy didn't realize is nowadays, if you've been blacklisted, switching email servers won't necessarily solve your problem.

Most people know that if you send spam, your email server's IP address will soon end up on a blacklist.

You probably also know that if your server is in the same "neighborhood" (IP range) as another server that sends spam (like in a shared environment at your ISP), then your server could get blacklisted too.

But not a lot of people know that your domain name can get blacklisted. If that happens, it doesn't matter where you send your email from. If spam filters simply find your domain name in the email's content, the message will get blocked.

The idea is that if you're an evil spammer (or just a really sloppy company), and you pay affiliates to go out and spam on your behalf, your company's name and reputation can get tarnished right along with theirs.

They call it "spamvertising," and you do not want to be labeled as a "spamvertiser." You'll end up on a "URI Blacklist" or "URI Block."

You can check if your company's domain name is blacklisted at:

http://lookup.uribl.com/

If you have an affiliate program at your company, this should be a concern (along with making sure your affiliates are CAN-SPAM compliant). Here are some tips for monitoring your affiliates, and here's a case where the FTC sued a company for letting its affiliates violate CAN-SPAM.

It's an interesting topic.

MailChimp was once put on a blacklist for this very reason. Not because of affiliates, or spam. But because our list-manage.com domain name, used for handling double opt-ins and unsubscribes for all our customers, is found in millions of emails sent every single day. When we first introduced our list management features (and bought that domain name), it looked very suspicious to all the spam filters out there that suddenly, this one domain name was found in so many emails across their network. They thought we were a spamvertiser.

Luckily, they do a little research on domains before they block them. Un-luckily, our domain name was brand-spanking new, so it had no history whatsoever. Took us a while to get off those lists. Now that the domain has a long (and good) history, we don't have that problem anymore.

Spammers are actually trying to fool spam filters who look for "spamvertising" domains by embedding tons of legitimate domains into their spam. The idea is to flood spam filters with false positives, rendering them useless. Or, instead of embedding their own links, they disguise them by using free "redirect" services (like tinyURL) in their spam.

Naturally, spam filters are responding to that by actually following every single link in your email, so they can get to the final destination domain and block it (Barracuda's firewall just introduced this feature).

It's neat when you think about it. Until you realize that when spam filters follow every link in your email, they will inevitably follow your unsubscribe link too. We've had a few recent cases of people mysteriously getting unsubscribed from lists, and we think we know why.

Hopefully, spam filters and email firewalls will start using "URI Whitelists" so that they don't follow certain (trusted/registered) links. Then of course, spammers will find some way to ruin that too.

Round and round we go...

May 8, 2007 in Spam Topics | Permalink

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Comments

I personally thing the domain thing is totally stupid. What happens if I have 1 million email addresses and I SPAM them some viagra thing and ensure that I place mailchimp's domain inside everyone of them? Obviously I'm spamming from some third world country without proper laws, but won't that cause mailchimp a problem?

Posted by: Mark | May 14, 2007 9:44:03 AM

Spammers can definitely try diluting emails with legit domains. But I'd assume most anti-spam companies have other criteria to point out a sender's reputation, and that humans have to decide whether or not to block a URI outright. I doubt (hope?) URI blocking isn't automatic.

If I'm wrong, and URI blocking *is* automated, then you're right. It's stupid. It's too easily exploited.

Posted by: Ben | May 14, 2007 9:59:02 AM

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