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Whether or not an unsubscribe link is safe to use can be incredibly difficult to determine. Here are some rules of thumb.

In order to try to cut down on spam I usually opt out at the end of the offer. Is this a good idea or am I just confirming my email address is a good working one which invites even more spam?

It's hard to say without knowing what you mean by "at the end of the offer".

But you're quite right: sometimes the unsubscribe link isn't an unsubscribe at all. In fact, sometimes it's the moral equivalent of a "send me more spam" link.

The problem is that you really do need to know when it's legitimate and should be used.

I can offer some guidelines as to when you should and when you should not click on something that claims to be an unsubscribe link.

The rule is actually quite simple: if you asked for it, then it's probably legitimate and you should use the unsubscribe link. If you didn't ask for it then it's probably not legitimate, and you should avoid the unsubscribe link.

For example, if you sign up for my newsletter, you'll be receiving email that you explicitly asked for. In fact not only do you have to sign up, but you have to take a second step to actually confirm that you want the weekly newsletter. Only after you confirm do I start sending it to you.

"... if you asked for it, it's probably legitimate ..."

So:

  • you already trust me as a reputable site

  • you asked for my newsletter

  • you explicitly confirmed that you want my newsletter in a second "double opt in" stop

  • I send you only what you signed up for (a weekly newsletter)

Then I'm acting like a trustworthy source of mail. My newsletter is not spam, and I can probably be trusted. And yes, at the bottom of every issue of the newsletter is an unsubscribe link for you to click on if you ever want to stop receiving it.

If any of those rules are broken, though, then things get dicey.

You didn't ask for it. And, to be clear, you're positive that you didn't ask for the email you're receiving, then it's almost certainly classic spam. So called "newsletters" pushing the latest body part enlargement product or breaking stock market news are great examples. I get them, I never asked for them, thus they are spam.

And their unsubscribe links are not to be trusted. As you've pointed out, they're just confirmation that "we've got a live one!" and will in all likelihood result in only more spam, not less.

From here on out, though, things get less clear.

You've never heard of the sender. When you suddenly start getting email from a business or other source that you don't recognize it's right to be suspicious. Most of the time it's simply spam.

The problem is that sometimes when you, for example, complete a purchase at an online retailer, they will send you email (more on that in a second), but they will sometimes also ask if it's ok to share your email address with marketing partners. By that they mean they'll give your email address to other companies so that they can send you offers.

In a sense you asked for it because you didn't uncheck a box somewhere in the order process. Personally I find this type of tactic often underhanded; sometimes that box is really hard to notice and easy to leave checked without ever having paid attention.

What this means, though, is if you suddenly start getting email from what appears to be a legitimate business that you've never actually done business with it might be legitimate. But it also might not be.

I'd err on the side of safety in most cases and not use the unsubscribe link unless it was obviously a link directly to the site of the company, and it's a company I already trust.

You never confirmed your desire for more mail. The concept of "double opt in", where you need to confirm a separate piece of email in order to get on a list, is extremely important "best practice" for senders of email. But it's not really required. For example, when you place a purchase with an online retailer they'll need to collect your email address in order to process the purchase. If they then start sending you periodic offers after your purchase is complete, is that spam or not? Different people will give different answers.

My take is this: since it's from a company you actually transacted business with, I'd trust the unsubscribe link.

You confirmed, but then didn't get what you expected. Also known as a "bait and switch". Perhaps you sign up for someone else's newsletter, and then start getting sales and marketing emails, either in place of or in addition to the newsletter. That's really bad form. The problem is that once again it's difficult to know exactly what to do. You may be all right unsubscribing, you may not be.

The bottom line is the simple reputation of the sender. If you have reason to trust the source of the email and believe them to be legitimate and well-behaved senders of email, then absolutely use the unsubscribe link.

If you've never heard of them, don't.

Article C3216 - November 18, 2007 « »

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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
Greg
November 18, 2007 6:19 PM

Worth noting that some spammers put in bogus unsubscribe links just to make their e-mails look more legitimate. In those cases, you don't get more spam because the unsubscribe address or URL goes nowhere.

Ken B
November 19, 2007 7:25 AM

There are anonymous e-mail service providers out there that allow you to use a different e-mail address each time you sign up for something on line. (I use sneakemail.com) This way, you know exactly where the mail should be coming from, and if it's not from them, you know who sold your e-mail address to a third party. And, if it starts getting lots of spam, simply delete the account.

Another option, if you own your own domain name, is to create unique e-mail addresses for this purpose.

Finally, if your ISP supports "username+code" e-mail addresses, you can use that as well.

For example, I use "myusername+askleo@myisp.tld" on these posts. (Not because I don't trust Leo, but rather because I do this on all public blogs I post to.)

Nick
December 1, 2007 9:45 AM

Another method, I believe for unsubscribing to a particular company's web site would be to utilize your tool in preferences for not receiving email from their particular web site. In other words, "BLOCK THEIR EMAIL ADDRESS" from ever getting into your email in the first place. This way, they will get it returned to them with an indication that you do not prefer to receive email from them. If they've already put others on to you, I guess you would have to do the same to them. To me, this is a sure way of unsubscribing someone.

woodyww
November 24, 2010 2:13 AM

I do much of the same but i never open spam becase they can trace them in some cases. I use a 3rd 4th or 5th email to have mail sent that i sign up for things, then after i find out like Leo i change it to my good email addy. I get very few spam emails that way. i go as far as setting my mail not to be as read for 25 sec that way it dont show as read to the sender incase i click on it.

Bob
November 24, 2010 3:19 AM

I've seen a lot of spam with 'unsubscribe' links - they're getting sneakier all the time.
On a slightly different note, and a worrying one in my opinion - I received an offer email from a company I requested some info from a while back. A week later, someone phoned me from that company, and asked if I was interested in that offer, as I'd opened the email 7 times.
This shows that without doing ANYTHING with the e-mail (other than opening / highlighting / previewing it) the sender gets confirmation of a 'good' address.

Mike
November 24, 2010 12:43 PM

When I owned a local company, I designed and administered my own website for it. One day I got a call from a web developer who offered to increase my business by tapping into visitor details, collecting information, and formulating invasive processes to aggressively advertise my services and products to them. Apparently, for many companies, if it ain't outright illegal, then it's "just good business". But my integrity is what keeps customer loyalty, not slick manipulation of their personal info.

If I've asked for it, then it's legit and I'll Unsubscribe when I no longer want it. But even if it's an onsite store that I've done business with, I didn't ask for junk mail or badgering (even by omission), and I won't give them the "benefit of the doubt" with some Unsubscribe. I'll list them as Spam and never do business with them again. Fortunately, there ARE onsite companies that don't abuse their customer relationships.

Sandra
November 29, 2010 12:27 PM

If a company with whom I have legitimately done business sends me email, and I later unsubscribe using their unsubscribe link, and they continue to send me their email, I consider that spam. Likewise, if their unsubscribe link doesn't work or takes me to a page that requires me to complete a bunch of personal information just to unsubscribe (rather than simply requiring my email address), that's also spam in my opinion.

I agree. I also strongly dislike those that say "it may take up to 14 days to process your unsubscribe". No. There's no reason in this day and age for an unsubscribe not to be immediate. Once I unsubscribe any further email from that source is spam (I may give them a grace period of an hour or two, since I, too, run servers and know that there can be occasional delays - just not 14 day ones).
Leo
30-Nov-2010

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