Ask Al: What of the MAPS RBL?

Jerry writes, "I have a question about spam of all things. I'm on the client side now at company X and I am talking with their email group about opt-in permission. I'm learning they're not exactly worried about the opt in status of the customers getting their promotional emails.

I remember from back in the day that the MAPS RBL was the main group going after people who didn't respect opt-in permission. Has the RBL relaxed its stance since the last time I did promo emails so many years ago? Do spam complaints no longer carry the threats they  once did?

I know our company is purchasing lists for prospecting. How do we avoid getting listed? We just need to more closely verify that these people have opted-in, right?"

Jerry, thanks very much for your question.

The MAPS RBL (Mail Abuse Prevention System Realtime Blackhole List) was the first anti-spam blocklist/blacklist (or blackhole list), created by Paul Vixie. Back when I had my turn as a volunteer (1999), and then an employee (2000), for MAPS, a MAPS RBL listing was like deliverability death. A typical sender's bounce rates would skyrocket to more than 60%. A lot of time has passed since then. MAPS still exists as a brand or subdivision of anti-spam/security vendor Trend Micro, and certainly, their security/reputation services are widely used. It's not like it was in the old days, though.

The listing risk is still there, though. Today the risk is from Spamhaus and their SBL (Spamhaus Block List). Spamhaus representatives watch their spamtrap feeds to look for evidence of senders (companies, organizations) not complying with best practices, and will then list a sender's mailing IP addresses on the SBL. The SBL is very broadly subscribed to. Bounce rates will jump to over 60%. More than half of the top ten US consumer ISPs subscribe to the SBL, meaning you're very widely blocked when they blocklist you. Also, Spamhaus is very widely respected in the security and anti-abuse community.

As far as how to make purchased lists work, I really don't think they're going to work for your company. You might not get instantly listed -- for the same reason you're not going to get caught speeding every time you do it. The cops aren't always watching the same corner every day. But eventually, it'll catch up to you. You'll end up blocked at a Yahoo or a Hotmail. Or you'll end up listed by Spamhaus. And cleaning up from that issue is really, really painful. You'll have to throw away all the purchased records and probably run a reconfirmation run against the rest of your subscriber database. It'll decimate your database. Response rates will be poor. In my experience, it's much less painful to try to keep your data clean and clear of bad stuff on the front end, then have to try to clean it up after the fact.

I do think that Spamhaus has made an active effort to sort of "step up their game" when it comes to big brands sending unsolicited email. I check the Spamhaus "latest entries" page a few times a week and I'm starting to see bigger brands more often. Occasionally a Fortune 500 company and/or Hot 100 retailer. And I overhear people talking at conferences about how Spamhaus seems much more aggressive than in years past. So I would theorize that the risk of being blocklisted is higher today than it was in the past.
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