Why am I not getting the email I signed up for?

by Leo A. Notenboom

Missing Mail? Here's Why: Have you signed up for newsletters or discussion lists and then didn't get any mail from them? Or maybe you signed up and you stopped getting their mail? Where did it go? Why? What can you do about it?

Email mailing lists are a staple of the internet. From technical issues to social clubs to formal publications distributed by email, the email mailing list has become a critical component of how we conduct business, socialize and interact on the internet.

Unfortunately it's also the backbone for SPAM. And therein lies the problem.

As I outlined in a previous article, "Why is my mail to this person not getting through?, which discusses this same issue from the sender's side, SPAM prevention measures have begun to erroneously block legitimate email with almost frightening frequency. Sometimes filtered email is simply lost, other times it may be returned to the sender (aka "bounced"). Legitimate senders might have to go so far as to suspend sending to you simply to avoid all the bounced messages filling up their email.

Internet publishers are definitely feeling the pinch, particularly from large ISPs who aggressively, some say overly-aggressively, filter SPAM to appease their subscribers.

On top of the SPAM issue, the recent rash of email-borne viruses have also caused a new and different type of havoc that can also result in your being unsubscribed from certain types of mailing lists. It works like this: some one, not you, has a virus, and that virus spreads by reading addresses out of that person's address book and sending email. It ALSO uses those addresses to create a fake "From:" line. So if one of the addresses it elects to send email to is an email lists unsubscribe address, and the address it fakes in the from line is yours ... you may get unsubscribed and stop receiving mail from that list.

Of course there are all the "normal" things that can go wrong: though very rare these days, mail can be lost in transit due to purely technical reasons. This will depend greatly on your individual ISP, and will typically manifest as more random email loss, rather than a specific list or sender.

And finally, who hasn't hit the delete key just a little too quickly? I know I have.

So what's a person to do? There are several things that can help.

  • DO NOT use a "Report This As SPAM" button on email that you requested. Is it not the proper way to unsubscribe. I'm hearing of many legitimate publications being blocked because people have been using the SPAM button to unsubscribe, rather than unsubscribing the correct way. This does real harm to the publisher and to the other subscribers of that newsletter. Most newsletters will have instructions on how to unsubscribe, if not in every email, then in your initial welcome message, or on their related archive or web site.
  • Whitelist your subscriptions and the addresses of anyone else whom might send you email that you want to make sure don't get SPAM filtered. Most ISPs and SPAM filters provide a way for you to "whitelist" email coming from specific addresses that you can specify. This tells the SPAM filter to never block email coming from that addresses.
  • Adjust your SPAM filtering. Many spam filters allow you to configure just how aggressive they should be. By making them a little less aggressive, you might get a little more SPAM, but you will also get more of the legitimate email as well.
  • Check the SPAM bucket. Most spam filters will move suspected SPAM to a junk mail or SPAM folder. Check it every so often for legitimate mail, and use that opportunity to whitelist anyone that got mistakenly filtered.
  • Complain to your ISP. Not about SPAM, they get enough complaints about that. Complain if you lose legitimate email, especially paid subscriptions. Even if they don't provide you with a way to do it, ISPs should provide a way to ensure that people get the email they requested, and especially email that they've paid for.  
  • Consider RSS. RSS is a new distribution mechanism that many on-line publishers are using that both avoids spam and is anonymous as well. See the related links below for more information.
  • Preach the anti-virus gospel! Make sure that you and your friends and acquaintances all run up to date anti-virus software, and practice "safe computing" -- 90% of the time that simply means never opening an attachment unless you're absolutely positive you know that it's safe.

Leo A. Notenboom is a software engineer and entrepreneur who worked for Microsoft for many years, either developing some of the company's best known software or managing other engineers who did. When he left he started his own software engineering company and consulting firm, Pudget Sound Software. In addition to the services offered through http://pugetsoundsoftware.com, Leo runs the the popular Ask Leo! technical support site (http://www.ask-leo.com). Leo can be reached at [email protected].

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