Sunday, June 10, 2007

AOL email issues and spam "friendly fire"

Effective immediately we will no longer allow users to forward email to AOL email accounts. This decision is being forced upon us and many other hosting companies by AOL's policies, not by our own choice.

Over the past three years there's been a buzz in the hosting industry over the problems caused by users forwarding their email to their own AOL accounts.

What happens (as is shown in the thread from a cPanel users and hosting companies forum) is this...mind you, I did not write the following quote, it is one of many "anti-AOL comments" from the cPanel hosting forums:
Let's say your customer has their mail forwarding to AOL. So of course, it forwards everything, including spam. Now they check their AOL inbox, and they see spam. They report it as spam of course, because they are AOL users and don't know any better..(let's face it..AOL users are less intelligent) Now AOL gets the report and the way they work, they trigger your server as the spamming server. This has been verified by AOL:

"I apologize for any inconvenience. Yes the mails that are forwarded by your mail servers to AOL users are still counted as a complaint. Even if the AOL user has requested their mail to be forwarded. Either the AOL user will have to be informed that by marking a mail as spam they are sending in reports against your company, or the spam will have to be removed before being forwarded on. "

There's even a feature request in cPanel's BugZilla to give all cPanel hosting companies the option to disable the ability for accounts to forward email to AOL addresses. Other hosting companies have gone so far as to install scripts on their servers to seek out and disable any email forward going to an AOL account.

This issue has been a problem discussed in the hosting forums since 2004. I've seen many hosting companies disallow any email from their servers to be forwarded to AOL accounts, because of AOL's "friendly fire" practices. We held out as long as we could, since we have several long-time clients who also use AOL as their ISP. Recently our server was added to the long list of those blacklisted from sending email to AOL accounts, even though AOL admits the SPAM was not originating from OUR server.

In other words, an AOL user who also have an account with us reported "SPAM" that was forwarded from their own account to their AOL email address. AOL only sees the last "hop", or our server IP, that the SPAM was filtered through. A common mistake and I can't fault AOL for that, especially since most of this is automated. What I *do* fault AOL for is making it so ridiculously difficult, nearing impossible, to straighten out such a problem.

We have always taken a hard line against SPAM, with zero tolerance for any outgoing and working diligently against any incoming. An average of 83-87% of email processed on the server is SPAM, and though we filter out as much as is possible, there will always be some that gets through. There is just simply no way around that. Part of that is that what's SPAM to one person is an awesome opportunity to buy Viagra at 50% off to another! Sad to say, but if SOMEONE wasn't buying what they're selling....SPAM would be no more.

On May 7, 2007 I filled out all the appropriate forms with AOL to be whitelisted. I have yet to receive a response. I'm not hopeful there will BE one, based on the experiences from other hosting companies, but I do plan on calling them again this week.

And folks, there's a reason AOL has the reputation of being "the Internet on training wheels." It is. That's why email senders often create "AOL user, click here" links, because AOL email doesn't recognize hyperlinks that every OTHER email client on the planet does.

The AOL browser is a Hybrid (or bastardized) version of Internet Explorer. But it's not really IE. When you visist a website using the AOL browser there's a good chance you won't be seeing the page as the rest of the world sees it. Not only does AOL compress graphics, AOL's "Web Accelerator" stores copies of web pages, also known as caching.

If the web page has been changed recently you may be seeing the OLD version of the page and not the current one. A simple solution would be to use another browser. Just because you have AOL as your ISP, does not mean you MUST use their browser to see the web.

The problem of being hit by anti-SPAM friendly fire is an issue that extends far beyond AOL users. The casualties from companies who have been hit by friendly fire are many, and their numbers are growing. Hotmail's antispam measures snuff out legit emails, too, and problems with Yahoo's greylisting policies, though they officially lie and claim they don't greylist. Even Gmail has had problems with user reporting email in their Gmail accounts disappeared.

It appears that, as in many other areas of life, you get what you pay for, and free email There are also a growing number of services and vendors on the Internet who will refuse to allow you to sign up for whatever they offer/sell by using a "free" email account. Some extend this to AOL email.

If you must use a free web-based email account, at this point in time I would recommend Gmail. I'd also recommend installing an email client and downloading and/or backup your email locally.

You can never be too young, too rich, or have too much data backups.

And lest you think the spammers are winning the war...Washington state SPAM KING arrested. That's one down, 5,398,463 to go....