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

Email can be lost in transit for a variety of reasons, but the most common explanation is spam filtering. I'll look at why that is and what you can do.

I have a friend in New Jersey who sends me a prayer list for friends to pray for. I have not received any in two weeks. I called her and she has been sending them every day. Why haven't I received any?

There are actually lots of reasons why you might not get email from a particular person.

Ultimately, though, it all boils down to spam - specifically, the email being mistakenly labeled and disposed of as spam.

While a prayer list might not sound like spam to you, especially because you appear to want it, there may be other characteristics of the email that cause it to be treated as such.

For this discussion, I'm going to assume that this is probably a broadcast message: it's a single email that goes from one person to many others once a day. While a single person-to-person message can suffer from some of the issues that I'll discuss below, it's more common that these happen to email messages that are sent to a larger group of people.

I'll also point out that sex, politics and religion, besides being discussion best avoided at office parties, are also topics that seem ripe for being mislabeled as spam. The terminology around something as well intentioned as a prayer list could fall victim to some of the items that I'm about to describe.

Shocking!

Obviously Spammy Content

As I said, I wouldn't expect this to apply directly. If it does, it probably only contributes to more serious issues which I'll talk about shortly.

The obvious examples of spammy content are things like mentions of body parts, sexual enhancement tools and medications, drugs, and overtly sexual references. When a filter evaluates a message as spam, it may also place weight on words and phrases that are common to spam. For instance, the use of the word FREE in a sales context or "money-back guarantee" may cause your message to be flagged. There are literally thousands of such phrases that may come into play, and which ones (if any) that might be used in the determination will vary dramatically based on your email provider.

Whenever email fails to reach me, my first reaction is to look at the content of what was sent to see if there's anything that could be misinterpreted as looking like spam.

Not-so-obvious Spam Characteristics

Below is a list of things that may not necessarily be an indication of spam, but each one might count against an email message. Depending on how the anti-spam tools are configured by your email provider, some combination of these could tip the balance for the message so that it's flagged as spam:

  • Coming from a free email service with notoriously bad spam reputations, like Hotmail, or Yahoo.

  • Being sent to a large number of recipients.

  • Using BCC where your address - the recipient - isn't visible in the To: or Cc: line.

  • Encoded in a non-standard or foreign character set.

  • Use of images, particularly excessively large or small (1x1)

  • Various HTML encodings, such as white-on-white text or excessively small type

  • Misspelled words, particularly those that would normally trip spam filters immediately

  • And so on...

I have to reiterate: none of these things are necessarily wrong or bad. They appear in normal email all the time. What spam filters do is look at these characteristics, how often they happen, how many happen in conjunction with anything else that the spam filter might look at to devise a probability that a particular message is spam.

For example, a message from a Hotmail address, where you are BCC'ed, intentionally (or even accidentally) misspelling a drug name in a common way that keeps it recognizable to humans might, I have to stress might, be enough for a message to be marked as spam on some systems.

Once again, my first reaction is always to look at what was sent to see if there's anything at all that could be misinterpreted as looking like spammy content.

"The email that the sender sends to other people can also affect his ability to send to you."

The Wisdom of the Crowd (or Lack Thereof)

This is by far the hardest to quantify and the most frustrating.

If too many people get this email every day and click the "This is spam" button in their email program, then they could be preventing you from getting the email you want.

Let's say that the message goes out to 10 people each day who happen to be on the same email service as you. Let's also say that, about once a day on average, one of those 10 people clicks on a Junk or "This is spam" button to get rid of the message. Your email provider will see that as, "10% of the people who get an email that looks like this think it's spam".

They may then decide, "10% is too high. It must really be spam; we'll filter for everyone".

And you no longer get the message, even though you never consider it spam.

I've grossly over-simplified the process and pulled the 10% figure out of the air, but you get the idea: other people marking these messages as spam can cause you not to get them.

About the only thing that you can do is find the message in your email provider's spam folder. If there is a spam folder, and if the message is there, absolutely mark it as "This is NOT spam", or whatever your provider uses for that determination. That'll possibly help swing the pendulum and increase the chances that you'll get the message in the future.

The Wisdom of the Sender (or ...)

The email that the sender sends to other people can also affect his ability to send to you.

For example, let's say that the person who sends you this prayer list also regularly sends out large quantities of actual spam or unsolicited email. Or let's say that he regularly includes in his normal mailings items that cause some of his recipients to consider and mark it as spam.

That affects the sender's reputation.

And this affects how likely any email that he sends is going to be tagged as spam.

Your Own Anti-malware Tools

I'm not a huge fan of having anti-malware tools on my machine scanning my email as it arrives and this is one reason why.

Every so often, the anti-malware tool will decide that something is spam (when it's not) and delete it: not move it to a spam folder or a deleted folder, but permanently delete it so that it's as if you never got it.

I prefer to trust my email program - and myself - to weed through the email that makes it to my machine.

What Can You Do?

Unless the problem is your own anti-malware tool, there's little that you can do directly. As I mentioned, if you do find the message in your spam folder, make sure to mark it as "not spam" to help improve the chances of receiving the next one.

But, ultimately, if your email service decides that these emails are spam and you have no way to tell it otherwise, the best that you can do is to get an additional account at another provider and start receiving these messages there.

You might also consider letting the sender know that there's an issue. Because so much of spam detection is about the sender and the messages being sent, you might not be the only person missing them.

Article C4780 - March 30, 2011 « »

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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.

Not what you needed?

6 Comments
David
April 5, 2011 8:21 AM

Pray that it'll sort itself out. That ought too work.

In all seriousness though, a LOT of spam that comes from scammers talks about "praying for you" etc. It's designed to take advantage of the naive or trusting people in the community.

Tidus
April 5, 2011 8:42 AM

I was not getting a password reset from battlenet and finally found the problem was internet explorer had to turn off smart screen filter under safety (right next to tools)

Nick
April 5, 2011 2:40 PM

I had a similar problem with a newsletter that I wanted, but which kept getting diverted into my Spam folder. I created a filter to direct email from that sender to a particular email folder, and from then on the newsletter went to that folder not the Spam folder. I assume that was as a result, and not mere coincidence. I've now unsubscribed from that particular newlsetter anyway.

Ravi Agrawal
April 6, 2011 2:45 AM

Use a different email address to get the email.

Thats a pretty straight forward solution I use to get email that is being blocked by my email service provider.

I know this is not the solution to what the asker put forward but just a workaround.

Ravi.

Snert
April 6, 2011 8:45 AM

Whitelist them you trust. That tells your spam filter this 'This is One Of The Good Guys'.
Make sure The Powers That Be are with you on the Whitelist.
Leo, you're Whitelisted. I asked for and want any and all e-mail you send me. So far, so good.

Carlos R Coquet
April 29, 2011 11:54 AM

Many eMail programs will NOT send something to the Spam box if the origintaring eMail address is in your address book. Put it there,

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