Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

It's not that uncommon for email to bounce and bounce in ways that implies that you might be spamming. I'll look at what might or might not be happening.

I've been wrongly labeled as a spammer - what can I do about it?

I have used the same email address (me@mydomain.co.uk) for about 10 years. I am the author of a newsletter which goes to about 150 people, ALL of whom have ASKED to be included in my list, and I send and receive about 30 emails/day, mainly business. I never have and do not currently use my ID for any spamming to anyone, nor do I forward any of the dozens of spam emails I receive from "friends."

When I sent an email to two different local contacts recently, I received the same message by return: "This message was undeliverable due to the following reason: Your message was not delivered because the return address was refused. The return address was "<me@mydomain.co.uk>" Please reply to <Postmaster@ispmail.ntl.com> if you feel this message to be in error."

I DO consider this message to be SERIOUSLY in error - I have written to them several times, but I have been ignored. What do I do now, please?

Very little that you haven't already done.

First, you're assuming that the message means that the remote system thinks you're a spammer. That's not necessarily true.

Even if it is, it's very important to realize that this isn't some global database where everyone in the world now thinks you're a spammer.

On the contrary.

It's very likely to be this one email system that you're having trouble with and perhaps only a single user thereon.

"Return address was refused"

One of the frustrations of diagnosing email error messages is the potential ambiguity.

This error could mean so many things.

It could mean that the user that you're sending to actively blocked your email address from sending to them. Depending on the service, that could be entirely separate from spam processing.

"... it's also very likely that this isn't your doing at all."

It could mean that the mail server was unable to validate your email address - perhaps the DNS servers that resolve "mydomain.co.uk" or the mail records associated with it were having a problem at the time. Again, this is unrelated to spam.

It could mean a configuration error on the part of the recipient's email server. Particularly for smaller services, this is surprisingly easy to have happen.

And, of course, it could mean that the system has identified your email address as a source of spam.

It still might not be you.

Spam versus spam

Let's assume for a moment that the email is being rejected because your email address has been listed as being source of spam.

First, it's very likely that this association is only on this one email service. As I mentioned earlier, there's no global list of spammers by email address. There are a few lists, but they are often incomplete, poorly maintained, and used by relatively few email services any more because of their inaccuracies.

Second, it's also very likely that this isn't your doing at all.

Yes, it's possible that the people that you're sending messages to have clicked the "This is spam" button. It happens all too often on legitimate non-spam - either because the button is too close to delete, you've said something to annoy the recipient, or perhaps they're just too lazy to look for your unsubscribe link. Of course, if you change what you're sending so that it no longer meets the expectations of what people originally signed up for, it might legitimately be considered spam.

But I'll assume that you're doing all the right things and that your subscribers are as well.

You email address could still get marked as a spammer.

It's extremely common for spam to be sent "From:" spoofed email addresses. What that means is that a spammer could be sending spam that looks like it's "From:" you, even though you're not in any way involved.

And the recipients of those messages could legitimately hit the "This is Spam" button.

This is so common that most spam filters should actually be ignoring most "From:" senders - they're random these days and have little to do with the spamminess of the message.

However, some may still; as a result, you pay the price.

About "postmaster"

The email address "postmaster@" is technically supposed to be valid for every domain that can send or receive email. Most email servers will come pre-configured with error messages that suggest that you contact that email address for additional assistance.

In practice, though, it rarely helps.

  • Because it's predefined, the "postmaster" email address probably gets more spam than any other email address.

  • Because there's so much spam and so many spam-related issues, the person handling email sent to postmaster is very likely overwhelmed (often this isn't a full-time position; it may be something that happens in a sysadmin's spare time, if that person has any).

  • The email address is often ignored.

That's not to say that all email servers handle postmaster poorly, but many do. The work associated with responding properly is just too overwhelming.

What should you do?

There's only one thing that I'd add to what you've done already: send a message from a different email address and ask the recipients if they are aware of why this bounce might be happening. If they are (say they blocked you), that's important information for you. If not, they as customers of that other email service can often get better support at their end in tracking down the issue than you can as an outsider.

But if none of that works, there's surprisingly little to be done.

Every week, a very small percentage of subscribers to my newsletter mark it as spam. As long as that percentage is low, it's not worth worrying about.

Move on.

Article C5081 - February 18, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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7 Comments
Tim
February 21, 2012 8:48 AM

Using a specific email address that's different from your normal one to send newsletters, etc. is a good idea too. It may reduce the chances your primary account will be tagged as a spammer.

Ken
February 21, 2012 8:52 AM

I also post a newsletter to about 60 addresses in the UK.THe BT (British Telecom) Postmaster used to reject my mail "as it may be spam". This was purely because about 8 of my recipients were BT clients. Solution: I split my list and put half on each one.

Jim
February 21, 2012 10:08 AM

I have gotten that message when the email is no longer valid (they've deleted thier email acct)

Mike
February 21, 2012 12:18 PM

I've encountered that problem, and following up on it, I found that my domain was being blacklisted for the SOLE reason that it COULD be used for spam, whether or not any actual complaints or reports had occurred. It's been less of a problem in the last couple years, but still not eliminated. Of course, I can eliminate the problem by PAYING to have it whitelisted.

Merrylib
February 21, 2012 5:54 PM

I get the spam message when I send to elected officials who have been replaced. I have to call to ask the new person to add my e-address to their contacts.

Fred Christman
February 22, 2012 7:37 AM

I used the above email to show 'racsa' address. (avefenix@racsa.co.cr)This is a government monopoly ISP for dialup in Costa Rica. Therefore there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of users (I have no idea), but any spam that comes out of that address and gets to verison or comcast will shut down all traffic to them from any one of us. Just a comment. It usually gets going again shortly and I have a lot of other addresses, but many do not.
Fred Christman
Let me comment a bit further. I personally have quite a few domains with Verio. These are small and shared with other users in various ways by Verio on a single computer and sometimes on a single IP. The same thing happens there when it's NOT the same domain.

JustInspired
February 23, 2012 1:33 AM

I've also had issues like this because I'm on a Shared Hosting server where I share the same IP address with several if not many other websites. All it takes is for one rogue account with an outdated and insecure script running on it for hackers to set it up as a spam bot. Of course this gets noticed and removed by the hosting providers but not before thousands of spam emails have been sent out. The server's IP address usually gets blacklisted for at least 24 hours.

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