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Ken Magill

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The Dreaded DNSBL Listing: What Not to Do


By Ken Magill
[Part 2 of 2. Read part 1 here.]
It’s every email marketer’s worst nightmare: Getting blocklisted by Spamhaus or one or more of the other significant operators of DNS-based Blackhole Lists.
DNSBL’s, also known as blacklists and blocklists, are lists of IP addresses deemed by the lists’ maintainers to be sources of spam.
Email inbox providers reference these lists against incoming email as part of their formula to reject or flag as spam messages from senders whose IP addresses are on one or more of them.
The most well-known blocklist operator is Spamhaus. A listing there reportedly results in massive email delivery troubles.
So how should a supposedly permission-based email marketer handle a blocklisting? And just as importantly, how should a supposedly permission-based email marketer not handle a blocklisting?
Christine Borgia, senior director, certified compliance for email intelligence firm Return Path, gave a presentation two weeks ago at the Email Sender and Provider Coalition’s annual meeting in Washington on the dos and don’ts of handling an DNSBL listing.
In part one, she presented the dos. This week in part two, she presents the don’ts.
According to Borgia, a marketer who has been blocklisted should avoid attempting to go through back channels.
“You might have met someone who works for a blacklist or someone at your company may have a contact at a blacklist,” she said. “It’s tempting to reach out to those contacts and expedite the process. I caution people against trying to expedite before following the regular process. There a lot of senders out there navigating the same problems and if every one of them calls that contact, that contact will disappear.”
Also, attempting to go through back channels tells the blocklist operator the marketer thinks they’re too important for the proper process, according to Borgia.
She recommends using the published removal procedure.
“Only go to your contact if you really need to,” she said. “And if you do go to your contact, what’s in it for them? You should be going to them because the published process is not working for some reason, in which case it’s good for them to know that.”
Borgia also counsels against demanding to be removed from the block list.
“It’s obvious they run a blacklist and it’s obvious by reaching out to them you want to be removed,” she said. “It’s one of those things that just doesn’t need to be said. When you say ‘delist me’ they hear: ‘Do your job.’ What you should be saying is: ‘Can you tell me more about why I’m listed so I can fix the problem.’”
Also, according to Borgia, marketers should avoid telling blocklist operators they are CAN-SPAM compliant. [Anti-spammers for the most part despise CAN-SPAM because it doesn’t outlaw unsolicited commercial email.]
“Telling someone you’re CAN-SPAM compliant only tells them you’re following the law,” she said. “And if you say you’re following the law you’re telling them that’s where you’re drawing the line. That’s not how email marketing works. 
“Following the law is the bare minimum,” she added. “CAN-SPAM doesn’t include a lot of best practices that are necessary to implement in order to stay off blacklists. So saying you’re CAN-SPAM compliant makes you sound ignorant of a lot of best practices.”
Borgia also recommends against marketers telling blocklist operators they’re ruining their business.
“You feel like they’re ruining your business because you’re losing money,” she said. “But from their perspective, you’re spamming their spam traps which are not real customers and don’t exist. By telling them they’re ruining your business, you’re telling them you need to send spam in order to make money. Also, this is what spammers say. Just don’t say that. They know you’re in email marketing and they know sending email is important to your business.”
According to Borgia, another big no-no is asking blocklist operators for the unredacted headers of the spam traps the marketer hit.
“People say: ‘I just need one. If you just gave me one, I could figure out how that email address got on my list, and I could extrapolate that to see the source of the problem,’” she said. “It’s a very fair point. But you’re just not going to get it. 
“Unredacted headers have a lot of information that would allow a spammer to find a lot of information about a trap network,” she added. “A lot of traps are domains. And if they give you one address that’s got the domain on it, there are potentially tens of thousands of trap addresses that they just gave away.
“A well-built spam trap takes at least 12 months [to be useful],” she said. “So if they gave it away they would be giving away years’ worth of work. So by asking, you’re just sounding ignorant.”
She also recommends against threatening a lawsuit.
“As soon as any words are said that make them sense a lawsuit, they are going to stop working with you and send it to their lawyers,” Borgia said. “Your goal is to get delisted and [by threatening a lawsuit] you’ve just messed that up for yourself.”

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