*Writer Almost Canned by Spam Misunderstanding

A Florida-based business writer and entrepreneur nearly lost his job after an e-mail he sent to anti-spam group Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC was labeled spam and was reported to his employer and its Internet service provider.

Sheldon Swartz, a contributing columnist at Spare Time magazine, Milwaukee, said he spent a day frantically working the telephones to halt the snowballing effects of a single, “accidentally delivered” e-mail that threatened his job and professional reputation.

MAPS manages the Realtime Blackhole List, a list of Internet protocol addresses the group believes to be friendly or neutral to spam. Getting placed on the list results in being unable to deliver e-mail through a reported 20,000 mail administrators who subscribe to the service, resulting in a reported 40 percent to 50 percent of a mailer's e-mail bouncing back.

Swartz said he initially wanted to e-mail MAPS for the name and telephone number of a media contact, but he sent a message by mistake that contained only his electronic signature.

The problem — and where the real story begins — was that Swartz's signature went beyond the typical name, number and address that many people automatically place at the bottom of their e-mails. Swartz's signature included a link to Spare Time's Web site and encouraged recipients of the e-mail to request a free copy of the magazine. What made things look worse is that Spare Time bills itself as “The Magazine of Money-Making Opportunities.”

That combination, Swartz said, got him in hot water with MAPS, which read it, saw the promotional language and labeled it spam. The events rapidly unfolded from there.

On Aug. 23, a MAPS staff member forwarded Swartz's e-mail to Starkmedia, Milwaukee, Spare Time's ISP. MAPS sent an e-mail to the ISP's mail administrator that included Swartz's e-mail and a message informing Starkmedia that it hosts the site accused of spamming MAPS. The e-mail also advised the ISP to “educate or terminate” the account.

The next morning, Starkmedia sent an e-mail to Spare Time Publisher Dennis Wilk informing him of the spamming complaint against Swartz. Wilk sent an e-mail to the ISP stating, “We had no idea [Swartz] was doing this. We are contacting him to cease and stop any further references to Spare Time or its entities in his activities. Since we have never received a complaint before, this is new and troubling to us.”

Wilk then called Swartz to inform him of a meeting later that day to discuss the possible termination of his employment with the magazine, according to Swartz. After hearing that message on his voice mail, Swartz spent the remainder of the day calling people at MAPS, Spare Time, Starkmedia and MindSpring, his own ISP, trying to explain what had occurred and refuting the allegation that he had spammed MAPS.

“I told them it was a personal and private e-mail,” Swartz said. “I don't spam anyone, I don't host a Web site and I'm not selling anything.” Swartz does sell his own audiotapes on marketing tips and other consultative services. But the e-mail to MAPS did not include any mention of those businesses.

Determined to fight what he feared would be a career-damaging accusation, Swartz went public in an effort to clear his name. “My job and my integrity were on the line,” he said.

To its credit, MAPS listened to Swartz's argument and by the evening of Aug. 24 told him it would toss aside the e-mail as an error and would clear up the confusion with anyone who cared to pursue the matter, according to Swartz.

That evening, Scott Lewis, Starkmedia's information technology manager, e-mailed Swartz to say that his company had no problem with the e-mail.

“I will be taking no action regarding this e-mail or any others like it,” Lewis wrote. He also provided Swartz with a series of links to Web sites with information about proper e-mail marketing and spam.

Most importantly, Swartz said his employer got over the initial shock and fear of hearing Spare Time and spam connected in the same sentence. By Aug. 25, Swartz said he believed his job was no longer in jeopardy. What remained, however, was a sense of bitterness that a misunderstood e-mail could multiply so quickly into a battle for one's livelihood.

“They could blow it off, but there's always that stigma. And I had that stigma of being a spammer,” he said. ” I almost lost my job and had to prove otherwise.”

Like many who cross paths with MAPS, Swartz said he understands its mission and does not object to its fight against real spammers. Nevertheless, he strongly disapproves of its methods.

“I object to any company that makes up its own rules and claims it speaks for most of us and then bullies other companies into submission,” he said.

Neither MAPS nor Wilk returned phone calls seeking comment.

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