The Blog That Is No More
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Friday, December 29, 2006
  Getting eMail around AOL and HOTMAIL spam filters

Sometimes the war against spam catches innocent webmasters in the crossfire

When we moved to our new dedicated server last month we were really excited. All those problems with the site going offline, email sending limits, and all those other headaches would be gone! Or so we thought...

One of the first things we noticed after moving to our new host was that we weren't getting any of the automatic "this forum thread has been updated" email at one of our hotmail accounts. After some testing it seemed that any email from the site- forum-update notices, new user verifications, newsletters, email sent via PoP3, nothing, was getting to Hotmail/MSN/Live email users. To make things even more frustrating was that we weren't even getting bounce notices or errors. All mail to Hotmail/MSN/Live accounts just vanished into a black-hole never to be seen again. After some Google'ing and a lot of reading I learned that I needed to setup a SPF, ehhr "Sender ID" record. I also found a few other DNS issues by using the tools over at DSN Stuff. So after some futzing around I got my Sender ID up on the new server and cleaned up my other DNS issues - but all of our email was still flushing right down the Microsoft spam-toilet. A little more Google'ing led me to the MSN/Hotmail Postmaster website, which only told me all the things I already knew. My only other resort was to send them an email asking why Microsoft was black-hole'ing all of our message.

Microsoft was really fast:
To my surprise I got a response to my email in less than an hour (at 11pm on a Sunday night!). The email message from a Certified Spam Tech. explained that my (new) IP was blacklisted due to a history of previous spamming. After a few emails back and forth, I was whitelisted and all my Hotmail/MSN/Live member email was flowing like water.

And then there was AOL

The next thing we noticed was that email to AOL members was being bounced. The message that we would get in the bounce message pointed to:
Which indicated that we had been reported as "spammers" by AOL members.
Now, lets clear one thing up right now. We are NOT spammers. We HATE spammers. Every email from our site is OPT-IN. In order to get automatic emails about new postings you must "subscribe" to that particular topic. To get our newsletters you must enter your email address then confirm that you actually want the newsletter by clicking a verification link that we sent to your email address. EVERY email we send has instructions on how to MAKE IT STOP - all you have to do is click the damn link and you'll never get those particular emails again. We are probably about as far from being spammers as one could imagine.
So I setup a AOL FBL (FeedBack Loop) which notifies me of any members reporting us as "spammers". I also had to setup "postmaster" and "abuse" email addresses, which I had not done. Within a week or two, members that use AOL were getting email again.. For a while..

After about two weeks I started getting bounce messages again with the 421dynt1.html error. This time I called AOL at their "Spam Hotline" at 1-888-212-5537 and spoke with a very nice young woman who submitted me to AOL's Whitelist. "Great!", I thought, "That was easy!"

About two days later I received an email from AOL indicating that my request for inclusion to their email Whitelist had been denied:
Your Whitelist request, with the confirmation code xxxxxxx-xxxx,
has been denied.

The IP address(es) you have entered appear to be a shared IP that is actually
owned by someone else. Since it doesn't appear that you own all the email
that this IP sends, we cannot perform any requests on this IP address unless
requested by the owner.
Shared IP? I don't share my IP with anybody! I pay good money for my own dedicated server and IP! I figured this would be easy to clear up with a fax of my Visa bill that showed how much I forked over to SurpassHosting for my new server so I made other quick call to the Spam-Hotline. I spoke with another very nice AOL Spam Operator and she made it very clear and simple to me - "...That's not your IP, perhaps the owner can contact us..." ... WTF?!

My only choice at this point was to enter a service request at Surpass and ask them to contact AOL and explain the concept of a dedicated server. After about a day (those Surpass guys are quick!) Ray at Surpass replied and explained that when he called the AOL-Spam Hotline, they told him the reason our email was being blocked is because the IP was less than 30 days old - Wait until the domain is 31 days old and reapply, they said. C'mon AOL, make up your mind!

The funny thing is that after Ray's call to AOL, I was no longer getting bounced emails from AOL - problem solved I thought, those AOL guys aren't so stupid after all ......

Then we sent our first newsletter:
On December 27th we send our first newsletter since the whole AOL spam issue started. I got several bounced emails for wrong/invalid AOL address, but it looked like all my AOL members were receiving the newsletter. I have my newsletter module set to throttle email at 500/hr, so it was going to take several hours to send the newsletter to all 6,000 or so recipients. I used that time wisely - carefully removing all invalid email address that got returned.

AOL FBL (Feed Back Loop)
About half-way thru sending the newsletters, I received ONE spam complaint via the AOL FBL. This means that someone marked our newsletter as spam and AOL was notifying me. To me it is particularly annoying that someone would sign up for our newsletter, receive the verification email, click the link that says "click here to confirm that you want to receive this newsletter", then when they get the newsletter, totally IGNORE the link at the bottom that says "Click here if you don't want this newsletter anymore" and instead report us to AOL as "spam". Ok.. Our website IS for "beginners" and most AOL members probably are beginners, but this just seems lazy. I figured oh-well.. Not the end of the world.

It was the end of the world
Or at least the end of my AOL emailing days for the time being. When my chron sent the next batch of 500 emails, I immediately received 5 or 10 AOL bounces - all of them saying that same 421 SERVICE NOT AVAILABLE; "421DYNT" error, which basically means "thou hath been banned from sending email to AOL based on member complaints" - OMG, ONE complaint and I'm banned?!

I'll start over from the beginning
My 30 days on the new server and IP is up next week. I will call the AOL Spam hotline then and see what they can/will do. Although I fully support AOL and their spam-fighting efforts, it seems to me that they might be able to be a little more smart about the way they do it. If my next attempt fails, screw 'em. We will start a campaign at the website and ask all of our members that use AOL to start complaining about not getting messages from - maybe that will wake-up the AOL SpamPolice. If it comes to that I'll be sure to make a new post detailing how it works out.

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