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Fighting spam is an incredibly complex and unfortunately inexact effort. Spam filters use data from many places - including you - to determine what is and is not spam. I'll review what steps you should take to maximize getting what you expect.

I have signed up for a large number of newsletter subscriptions to my Hotmail account. Around Christmas, something happened so only 20-25% get through. I have started a second Hotmail account with those I recall subscribing to, and they are delivered to the second account. I access three different computers and have the same results. Just prior to Easter, the account clicked and they were all delivered. On April 7th or 8th, the deliveries stopped again. I love to enter giveaways and so several years of connections to gfc, fb, tw, pin, circles, stumble, blogfrog are included in the problem. Starting over would be a nightmare. I am sure it has to be something on the Microsoft end as it flicks on and off at will. It is not just a filtering issue, as the newsletters are delivered to a second account, which doesn't connect to those other services. Is it possible they have a subscription limit? Also, friends with low usage are having similar problems.

What you and your friends are experiencing is nothing more than spam filtering.

Even though you signed up for them, newsletters – and for that matter any legitimate email – can still get filtered as spam for a variety of reasons.

And it's certainly not just Hotmail. All email services are scrambling to fight spam as much as they can. It's an incredibly complex issue without a simple solution.

I'll review a few of the reasons, but first, I'll suggest what actions you and your friend should take.

Teaching Hotmail

Most email systems, including Hotmail, try to 'learn' what is and is not spam or junk by providing ways for you to say what's what.

One of the most important things that you can do is to use the Junk or "This is spam" indicators correctly.

If you get an email in your inbox that is clearly spam, mark it as such. In Hotmail, that means hit the Junk button:

Junk button in Hotmail

You should also periodically check your Junk or Spam email folder for what are called "false positives" – email that has been marked as spam but actually is not. When you find a message in your junk or spam folder that shouldn't be there, there should be a way to tell your mail program or service that the email is legitimate. In Hotmail, that's the Not Junk button:

Not Junk button in Hotmail

Using the Junk and Not Junk buttons do two very important things.

  • Move the message to the appropriate folder (Junk, or Inbox, respectively)

  • Tell Hotmail that "mail like this" is, or is not, spam.

That later item is how Hotmail learns. As more mail arrives, it's compared against, among other things, what you've said is and is not spam in the past. If new mail "looks like" what you've marked as spam in the past, then Hotmail will eventually just mark it as spam without you're needing to do a thing.

It's one of several reasons that email might get delivered to one account but not another.

It's also where things get even less predictable.

Spam is about more than just you

In reality, the training that you perform by using the Junk or Spam button is actually only a part of the overall spam-fighting equation.

I'll put the information into three broad categories:

  • Information that the service gets elsewhere, like predefined list of spammy keywords, IP, email whitelists and blacklists, and overall reputation of email senders.

  • Information that you provide by using the spam or junk buttons properly.

  • Information that other users of the same system provide by using the spam or junk buttons – often incorrectly.

It's that last one that can get us into trouble.

In general what's called "crowd sourcing", or "the wisdom of the masses" is a pretty effective way to quickly identify spam, especially as spam changes over time. If 99% of the people getting a particular looking email mark it as spam then the system's pretty safe to just mark it as spam to begin with from there on out for everyone.

Things aren't always that clear, though.

Let's say you and nine other Hotmail users subscribe to a newsletter. By most definitions, it is not spam because all ten of you specifically asked to subscribe and probably confirmed your subscriptions. However, one day, three subscribers get lazy or annoyed and instead of properly unsubscribing from the newsletter, they instead click "This is spam" to stop it.

The mail system is in a bit of a quandary. Three people said it's spam, so the system may say, "OK, that's enough, I'll mark it as spam for everyone."

And you stop getting your newsletter.

Because enough other people didn't properly unsubscribe from a newsletter that they had explicitly asked for.

That's why I emphasize using the Spam button properly – you can affect what email other people will get.

Maybe after a few issues and enough people finding the mail in their junk folder and marking it as "Not Junk" the email service changes its mind, and you start receiving it again.

Spam is about more than just your email service

Unfortunately, it doesn't end there.

There are things like reputation that factor in as well.

Let's say the newsletter you signed up for uses a general purpose mailing service or sends from their own server on a shared hosting site. Their email comes from a service or an IP address that is shared with dozens, hundreds, or potentially thousands of other newsletters.

If a lot of those other newsletters are sending things that people mark as spam, or aren't using proper double-opt-in confirmation to send only to people who really want the email, then mail services may give their mailing list a bad reputation.

That bad reputation can extend to the other users of the same service or server.

Like the folks who are sending the newsletter that you want.

That newsletter is slightly more likely to be considered spam as that declining reputation is factored in with all the other things that might cause an email to be automatically marked as spam.

They had nothing to do with it, you had nothing to do with it. It's the fault of other, less reputable newsletter senders who make things worse for everyone.

And of course reputation, spam databases, the definition of what spam "looks like" is not only fuzzy and ill-defined, it's also constantly changing in response to the ever-changing nature of spam. What might have crossed the line last week might not this week.

Spam fighting's an ever-changing battle and one of the most difficult to comprehend. Even the definition of what is and is not spam differs depending on who's answering the question.

A couple of other things you can do.

Besides using the Spam or Junk buttons properly (and only properly), some email systems have additional tools that you can apply to your situations:

  • Email coming from am email address that appears in your Contacts or Address book is often less likely to be marked as spam, so be sure to add the From: address of any newsletters you want to receive. (Unfortunately, spammers realize this and it's one of the major reasons account hacks happen – spammers can then send to all the hacked account's contacts and probably get through.)

  • Some email services allow you to explicitly set up filters that act on email as it arrives – often allowing you to automatically move email to folders or flag email in certain ways based on conditions that you set up. The most relevant example here might be Gmail where you can define a filter such as, "If email comes from [email address], then never mark it as spam."

Definitely explore the spam-fighting capabilities of whatever email service it is that you use.

Sometimes, it never arrives

All of the above assumes that email being sent to you will show up in one folder or another: an inbox or some kind of spam or junk folder in your account if the email is determined by the system to be junk.

Sometimes, that assumption is wrong.

Sometimes, the mail that you're expecting never arrives at all and you have no chance to say that it is or is not junk and no chance to set up any kind of filtering of your own.

Sometimes, email system are so certain that email of a certain characteristic is spam that they simply don't deliver it.

And sometimes, they're wrong.

I know of no solution. You can complain to the service, of course, but my hopes for resolution on that are pretty slim – especially if you're using a free email system where there is typically little or no support.

I'll take that back. There is one solution that I'm aware of.

Move to a different email service.

Unfortunately, that normally means changing your email address, so it's a rather extreme measure. More frequently, people set up an additional email account – perhaps a Gmail or Yahoo account in addition to their Hotmail account – and use that for any otherwise problematic email deliveries.

Article C5404 - May 30, 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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3 Comments
rich
June 1, 2012 2:08 PM

It might be worth mentioning that there are a number of organisations out there collecting information on spammers - Project Honeypot is an example. One can look at the headers on any suspect email and eport/check it there, or just Google it and find all notices of offences. Helps in setting up your own filters.

Gord Campbell
June 3, 2012 2:42 PM

My preference is to get everything, and I will tap, tap, tap delete the junk. Bell Canada, for example, does not allow its customers to specify "do not filter my email," and that's part of the reason I am no longer a customer.

About 5% of what they filtered was not junk....

Mike
June 4, 2012 7:11 PM

I've basically abandoned my Hotmail account because it seems to be the absolutely worst at identifying spam (as opposed to Gmail or Yahoo, etc.). That inbox is continually bombarded with the same messages that I've tagged as junk over and over again. The spammers can seemingly generate an infinite number of domain names, but I would've expected Hotmail to identify the stuff based on the subject matter, etc.

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