Beware the Spam Trap

Recently I received an email from a major car rental company informing me that they would debit my bank account to pay for some vaguely defined « damage » to a car I had rented in August. Or at least I would have received it had it not been automatically swept away by the Gmail spam filter. I only discovered it during a routine check in the spam folder for “keepable” spams – I collect the more idiotic examples for posterity.

At first I thought it was a spam, too, since it looked like it had been written by a teenage hacker but then I couldn’t figure out where the trick was. So I checked the phone number and email address and to my surprise they checked with the official ones given on the company’s website. I even googled the author and not only did she turn out to be a genuine employee but Google even found an image of her. At this point I realized that it was a real message and to confirm it my bank reported the debit the next day. Since the charge was unjustified I contested the debit and the company has now returned most of the money, accompanied by a weak apology.

Today almost nobody reads unprotected email, so if a company is sending mails that look like spam they are going to have all sorts of trouble when they go astray. Projects can be delayed since key information does not arrive, and customers can get very angry – I can testify to that – and change to another vendor.

Nobody should be sending emails that look like spam, but since many companies still do this – even big ones -- I’d like to share with you some basic guidelines for avoiding this problem.

First, your organization has to be aware that the problem exists and that there has to be a clearly defined process to make sure that all emails sent by the company are spam filter-resistant.

Second, when the company’s main processes are designed or revised all of the standard message templates and procedures must be reviewed by a competent spam-literate expert, either in house or contracted.

Third, all employees who are authorized to send mails to customers should be given guidelines, training and suggested templates for messages.

Fourth, your IT department should set up a monitoring process that mails sample messages to email accounts protected by the popular filters to see if any get caught. If you have the resources you can offer an automatic Spam filter verifier for draft messages.

Fifth, recognize that there is an arms race between spammers and spambusters, so what works today will not work next week. Make sure that you don’t get complacent and review your spam trap program regularly.

Why bother doing all this? Well it might save you a customer. Our friends at the famous car rental company are not likely to see me again and this kind of professional attention to detail in their communications might have saved them a customer.


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