Use Offline Rules to Combat Spam

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Do you remember the last time you went to your mailbox (or the regular old mailbox) and withdrew seven duplicate mail pieces, four mailers with the wrong personalization and nine pornography offers with no postmark or identifiable return address?


Chances are you don't remember, because it hasn't happened. Postal regulations and data management divert the real junk from your mailbox. But if I were to pose the same question about e-mailboxes, your answer probably would change. As many of us fume over the erosion of online privacy, our anger speaks to the breakdown of two things: data and protocol.


I've spent 10 years cleaning, normalizing, enhancing, analyzing and marketing with boring old mailing lists. Only in the past six months have I helped launch an online site.


Never before have I seen such messy data or conceived of a world where a mailer could heist "postage" the way spammers do. I contend that if we as an industry can, one, properly manage our data and, two, help eliminate the technical loopholes used by spammers, most of the online world can exist as seamlessly with the consumer as most of the offline world does.


What do I mean by proper management of data? The same things the offline world has been perfecting for 25 years: merge/purge, personalization, casing, change of address, list management and the like. The software tools exist and are affordable for 90 percent of e-marketers - no modifications required. They are the same tools used in the direct mail and telemarketing trades.


While few tools can detect the proper formatting of e-mail addresses, others make the commission of one of the most galling offenses of direct marketing almost inexcusable. Duplicate mailings should not occur online, because each e-mail address is a unique set of characters that make finding duplicates easy. Today's online software can recognize that "123 Main Street" and "123 Main St." are the same place and that "Bob" and "Robert" are the same person.


Yet the opt-in data we've received through co-registration often are rife with these kinds of errors. Online data are basement quality. Its embarrassing mistakes, in part, force the consumer and system administrators to profess breach of privacy.


For example, I did not realize we would actually receive data with spaces in the e-mail address. Little did I know that "big jay@aol.com" would be interpreted by the mailer as "jay@aol.com."


"jay@aol.com" is Jay Levitt, chief architect of AOL's mail system. (And to think the best I could ever get would be something like jay573834@aol.com!) Had I not explained to Jay the nature of the mistake, with the flip of a switch he could have labeled us a spammer and ignited a chain reaction that would have shut down much of our business. And all for an oversight that proper list maintenance would have fixed.


To improve online marketing, it will take the whole industry working together. It will entail eliminating duplicates, properly forming e-mail addresses, removing bounced e-mail addresses, quickly responding to complaints and efficiently opting-out consumers. There are no shortcuts and no excuses.


Though cleaning our lists will erase many flaws, solving the problem of spammers is our real chance to shine. Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet and a technology Internet pundit, has long supported a "pay as you go" Internet. (He also predicted the collapse of the Internet - oh, well.)


For the most part, legitimate e-marketers are paying as we go. The costs of the programmers, servers, software and bandwidth are real. We pay them. The spammer does not. The spammer uses poorly protected resources on the Net to hide his identity and steal others' bandwidth. It is as much of a crime as postal fraud.


Consider standard bulk mail as offered by the U.S. Postal Service. It works because it is a trusted medium. The USPS requires a valid return address and prohibits its use for fraudulent purposes. Here, the current regulations make sense.


In the online world, services such as Mail Abuse Prevention System and Open Relay Behavior-Modification System deposit the addresses of mail servers believed to send spam into a "banned" list that many system administrators subscribe to. While I applaud the goal of spam-blocking services, I believe they are nothing more than high-level patches to a low-level problem. Too often they harm innocent sites whose e-mail servers have been hijacked.


What is needed is an upgrade in the way Internet mail is handled.


You can't send bulk mail without identifying your return address. Why should you be allowed to do it with e-mail? More than an arbitrary rule passed by Congress, we need a new Internet mail transport protocol that will transmit the certified identification of the sender. No more hijacked servers. Every sender should have to pay his way and suffer the consequences if he violates public trust.


Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. People still do bad data work, and people still commit mail fraud. However, the U.S. postal system is by far the best in the world for the legitimate marketers. And U.S. consumers have more control than anyone else over the use of their personal information.


Jay Graves is president of Smart-Reminders.com, Nashville, TN.
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