Distributed E-Mail Sender Raises Eyebrows

E-mail marketers and anti-spam groups have raised questions about a New Hampshire bulk e-mail sender's distributed delivery system that routes messages through 60,000 computers scattered worldwide to evade spam filters.

Sendmails pays computer owners 50 cents per CPU hour to act as a “sending agent” by downloading its VirtualDMA software, which is used to send commercial e-mail during idle computer time. With 60,000 sending agents, Sendmails boasts it can deliver 2 million e-mails at once using 20,000 agents sending just 100 e-mails each.

“I would urge caution to any company considering a distributed delivery system like this,” said Trevor Hughes, executive director of the E-mail Service Provider Coalition. “It smacks of an organization that is trying to avoid spam filters.”

Sendmails CEO Brian Haberstroh said the company has gotten a bad rap.

“They don't like that we use other people's machines to get around filters,” he said.

Haberstroh declined to name clients of Sendmails or the number of e-mails it sends out. He said the company does not take business hawking offensive material and is in compliance with the CAN-SPAM Act, including promptly honoring all unsubscribe requests.

“Legitimate e-mailers have got to resort to different tactics to get their e-mail through,” said Haberstroh, whose other company, business list provider Atriks, is a member of the Direct Marketing Association.

Despite his protests that he is only trying to aid e-mail deliverability, Haberstroh is on the Spamhaus list of the 200 top alleged spammers. Spamhaus states that it has received reports from multiple computer users that they never knowingly downloaded the VirtualDMA software. Haberstroh said all users willingly downloaded VirtualDMA.

Hughes called Sendmails' approach troubling because it undermines efforts to combat spam by establishing e-mail sender authentication, since it effectively disguises the origin of the e-mail messages.

“A system like this is problematic because it creates complications for accountability within e-mail, which has been the melodic undertone of everything we've been singing for the last year,” Hughes said.

A report circulated among spam-fighting groups alleges that e-mail sent through Sendmails violates some CAN-SPAM provisions. Its analysis of Sendmails bulk mail stated that it lacked accurate header information, notification that it is advertising e-mail or a business address. The report also claims that some e-mail came from broadband providers whose terms of service forbid using them to send unsolicited commercial e-mail.

The report traced a number of unsolicited e-mails to Sendmails, including pitches for anti-wrinkle cream, low-cost mortgages and DVD burners.

“What they're doing is gaining permission of an end user in violation of their provider's terms of service,” said Catherine Hampton, the maker of Spam Bouncer filtering technology and the report's author. “In effect, the user is agreeing to send spam.”

Haberstroh said Sendmails would add a disclaimer to its Web site for those downloading VirtualDMA to check with their service providers to ensure they do not violate the terms of their service agreement.

“There's a number of things they're doing that are highly questionable,” said an executive at a major e-mail service provider who requested anonymity. “Here you have someone who is claiming they're a legitimate service provider and following practices that give us a bad name.”

Haberstroh attributed the criticisms to a “lack of education and a lot of assumptions.”

“We sleep at night,” he said.

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