We’ve become aware of an issue that may affect your future receipt of the Alchemy Mindworks E-mail Update List, replies from our support staff, order confirmations and most other e-mail communication from us. It could also affect your receipt of e-mail from other on-line merchants you do business with, your physician, your bank and possibly your great-aunt Blothelda.
You’ve got to wonder who thinks this stuff up…
Many e-mail systems filter their incoming messages with some species of spam blocker. The simplest and cheapest of these is what’s referred to as a “blacklist,” or perhaps more accurately, a “black hole list.” While the thought of odious spam disappearing into a black hole will bring a smile to even the most grizzled features, the reality of these things is somewhat less appealing.
A black hole list is a list of IP addresses from which spam is believed to originate. IP addresses are the numerical addresses for Internet mail servers. The spam blocking services that use black hole lists create and maintain them through the ongoing use of “spam traps.” A spam trap is an e-mail address with some software behind it. Whenever someone sends e-mail to a spam trap, the software in question works out the IP address from whence it came, and adds it to a black hole list.
The parties responsible for the spam traps typically post their spam trap e-mail addresses in the sorts of places where spam harvesters are likely to find them, and subsequently spam them. Regrettably, the software that runs a spam trap is pretty unsophisticated as a rule, and it can’t determine whether what it receives is spam or legitimate e-mail gone astray.
In practice, blacklists typically nail pretty much everything but spam. Any serious spammer with three or more functioning brain cells – admittedly, that’s not all of them – will use agile IP addresses to spam from, that is, IP addresses that change periodically, to work around blacklists.
Our sense is that the organizations that maintain blacklists have appreciated that they only appear to be working if they block lots of e-mail. In the interest of retaining the accounts of the large ISPs who subscribe to these things – and more to the point, pay for them – they likely endeavor to get as many IP addresses into their lists as possible, whether they belong there or not.
A spam blacklist is a superb example of something that looks good on paper… and totally crashes and burns when it’s confronted with reality.
In a perfect world, the foregoing method for blocking spam would be extremely effective. However, in a perfect world, spammers would get lives for themselves, and be something other than spammers, obviating the need for all this stealth and subterfuge in the first place.
In this world, black hole lists lend themselves to ready and widespread abuse. It’s not at all difficult for hackers, cyber-cretins and bored kids to find some spam trap addresses. Most businesses – ourselves included – maintain automatic newsletters, update lists or other features that can be used to send e-mail back to a subscribed address without human intervention. Said kids can subscribe a spam trap to our newsletter, and instantly block receipt of it for any of our subscribers whose ISPs use the spam blocking service in question, often indefinitely.
Such a block will also affect customers who buy our products and expect to receive registration codes by e-mail, and users who e-mail us with support questions.
A black hole list is comparable to solving your mouse problem with a twelve-gauge shotgun. You’ll unquestionably nail the mouse, but you’ll also destroy a great deal of woodwork, technology, furniture and other stuff you’d probably prefer keeping intact.
Our experiences suggest that the failings of blacklists are exacerbated by their being run, for the most part, by people with a somewhat exaggerated appreciation of their relationship with the universe. They typically have ineffectual or non-existent removal systems, and support staff who are unwilling or unable to address the problems caused by non-spammers finding their way onto one of these lists.
Few forces of nature are more intractable than a former cubicle-dweller suddenly availed of power.
Where’s the Exit?
Needless to say, we’ve found ourselves beset by several of these things of late. We’ve been advised that identifying them by name would be imprudent. This is a shame, as they are, for the most part, run by bloody-minded idiots, and we’d have enjoyed a good rant.
We’d like to take this opportunity to recommend to all our users that they peek under the hood of their current mail solutions and determine whether there’s a blacklist in there. Specifically:
- We suggest that you contact your ISP, IT department, server manager or whoever’s responsible for your e-mail and determine the specific spam blocking strategy they’re using. Google the originator of it, and see if it’s based on a blacklist. Should this be the case, you might want to see if whoever’s handling your mail will let you opt out of it.
- If your primary concern in receiving e-mail from us is keeping up with our newsletter, you might wish to back it up by enabling our no-cost update agent, or by creating a free e-mail account with hotmail.com, yahoo.com or one of the many other free e-mail services, and creating an additional subscription to our list. Needless to say, subscriptions to our newsletter are free.
Our newsletter goes out every weekend – if it doesn’t arrive in your IN box every weekend, it’s safe to say that something’s blocking it.
The fundamental problem with “nuke ‘em all and let God decide” spam blockers like the ones described herein is that it’s difficult to know when you’re not getting your e-mail. In the case of mail from Alchemy Mindworks, a malfunctioning spam blocker might prevent you from knowing about an upgrade to Graphic Workshop. We’d be saddened if this happened, but it’s hardly life-threatening.
We hasten to add that black hole lists can block much more important communications.