Getting spam complaints and not knowing who made a particular email spam complaint is really frustrating. We get it. A common complaint that we hear, particularly from email senders who are signed up for feedback loops from ISPs, is “why won’t the ISPs let us know who is complaining and clicking “this is spam” on our email, so that we can unsubscribe them?” This is frustrating for senders who are following all best email marketing practices, including confirmed opt-in, because it means that someone who confirmed their consent to receive the email still complained that it was spam! (There are a few things that can cause someone who requested your email to still complain that it’s spam, which we go into in a different article.)

Sharing Who Made the Spam Complaints Aids Spammers

The first reason that an inbox provider or ISP won’t tell you who made the spam complaint against you has to do with not wanting to help spammers do what is known as ‘listwashing’ (sometimes spelled as ‘list washing’). As Spamhaus explains, “Listwashing is defined as the removal of spamtraps and the email addresses of “complainers” or “litigators” from a list that is not confirmed-opt-in, while retaining the other email addresses.” In other words, removing the people who complain, and still using the list to spam the rest of the email addresses. This problem is as old as email spam itself: spammers who are sending email to anybody they can, whether it’s wanted or not, or requested or not. ISPs don’t want to share the email addresses of the complainers with those spammers, and rightly so, because those kind of spammers simply want to take the email address off the mailing list to stop people from complaining. Listwashing means that the spammer has no intention of stopping spamming, they just want to get rid of the squeaky wheel.

This is one of the primary reasons that inbox providers and ISPs are not going to give up the email address of someone who hit the “this is spam” button on your email.

User Privacy

The other reason that inbox providers and ISPs won’t tell you who made a spam complaint against you, however, is that they take their users’ privacy very seriously, and may even be under a legal obligation to not share it. And so they are not going to disclose their user’s email address.

So, with that being the case, what can you do when someone who actually did ask for your email suddenly complains that it’s spam? How can you unsubscribe them if the ISP won’t tell you who it is?

How to Know Who Made that Spam Complaint When Nobody Will Tell You

Savvy email senders create a unique token which is keyed to a particular subscriber’s email address, and that unique, subscriber-specific token gets embedded in the email sent to that subscriber. Typically (not always, but typically) when someone hits “this is spam”, the message you get from the inbox provider via the feedback loop will include the message that you sent to the subscriber. And while the email address will be redacted, the content of your email will remain intact, including that unique token which your system can translate to the subscriber’s actual email address. Most ESPs (email service providers) embed this token automatically when you send email through them. Some ESPs, such as Aweber, will even automatically unsubscribe the complainer for you.

Hopefully this has shed some light on why the ISPs and inbox providers won’t give you the email address of someone who complains that you sent them spam. This is a good example of a situation where you need to understand why the system works the way that it does, and then, instead of bucking and railing against the system, learn to work with it.

Why ISPs Won't Give You the Email Addresses of People Who Make Spam Complaints Against You

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One response

  1. While I get the idea, it really seems quite silly. Can’t real spammers just put tokens in the email and still “list wash”? Seems like all the “security” around hiding the email address is just a bunch of hoops to make senders jump through.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the TIS button, and consumer control, but if the information isn’t shared properly, those who would do good with it are punished while the bad simply ignore it.

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