Getting back to my series on the good, the typical and the ugly in the ESP field, and there is some very ugly out there. I have 3 examples of the ugliness out there and what ESPs and legitimate senders are competing with.
The fake ESP
A spammer approached me early on in my consulting career, asking me to help him set up a fake ESP. He wanted to set up his corporate network so that to an outsider it would look like he was selling ESP services and thus had a large number of customers. There wouldn’t be any customers, however, all the mail would be coming from his company. When the blocking got bad enough, and it would as he would purchase addresses from anywhere, he would “disconnect” the responsible customer. My role was to help him come up with a plausible sounding acceptable use policy and then contact the ISPs when he “disconnected” the customer. I declined to participate in this scheme. This doesn’t appear to have stopped him, though, if the rumors I hear are to be believed.
Related to the fake ESP scheme is waterfalling. Spammers acquire lists of email addresses and then begin the process of cleaning them by mailing. In some cases, they mail through fake ESPs, as above. In other cases, they actually spread their traffic out across legitimate ISPs. As they mail the lists through the ESPs, they remove unsubscribes, bounces and complaints. When the list reaches a set cleanliness, they move it to another ESP. They repeat this, gradually moving through cleaner and cleaner ESPs. Eventually, they move the list to their own network and sell mailings to it as an opt-in list. It’s not opt-in, it’s just cleansed of all negative responders.
The companies abusing ESPs to clean their lists do tarnish the reputation of ESPs. While the responsible ESPs do disconnect the waterfallers, they usually do so after problems are detected. That being said, there are some companies that are constantly looking for “partnerships” at ESPs and the ESPs turn them away during the sales cycles.
While not necessarily an ESP problem there are some large companies out there that hire spammers to send acquisition email for them. They also send their own mail, both marketing and transactional, through ESPs. The issue for ESPs come when the URL blocks happen and the bad reputation of their customer’s mail bleeds back to the ESPs IP addresses. The ESP becomes known as “one of those places that mails for X” and their reputation falls accordingly. In some cases, even if the mail through the ESP is clean and opt-in, the ESP finds itself blocklisted for just doing business with a company that hires spammers.
I’ve had a couple clients recommended to me by ESPs because the ESP was dealing with a persistent spam block around this particular customer. The mail the customer sent through the ESP was opt-in, but the client was using an extensive network of affiliates to send spam for them. I collected a lot of examples of their spam from various affiliates, even gave them a couple of examples from my own email addresses. One of those addresses has not been actively used in 6 years. My client tells me they talked to their affiliates and that the affiliate assured them I had signed up, I just forgot. The client chose to believe the affiliate over me, despite the fact that I had many other examples. That client lost their ESP (and good for the ESP) but is still sending spam. I just got one advertising their stuff yesterday, at the same address I gave to them years ago, all images, hashbusters, domain hidden behind proxy, coming from a snowshoer network.
All of the companies I’ve talked about here describe themselves as legitimate email marketers. Even the company telling me I opted in to their mail was defending themselves and their affiliates as legitimate email marketers.