Email trustworthiness: Here’s how to avoid looking like spam

By Len Shneyder

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We’ve come a long way since the early days of email and its critical role in all corners of the internet. Today, email is the life line between brands and consumers — transactional email helps close the loop on user-initiated transactions, thus limiting the amount of time both parties need to spend tying up loose ends. Password resets have automated the most basic customer service function. Believe it or not, there used to be long wait times on phones to change a password or re-access an application that locked you out. According to Forrester research, a helpdesk call for a password reset can run a company $70 per call!

Meanwhile, two-factor authentication that combines mobile apps, PII designated by the user and, on occasion, an email have made critical applications and services more secure. Email is not only the means by which the internet has been built — allowing collaboration between remote parties — but it has become the very foundation of digital identity, in addition to the most reliable, personalized and universal document store in the world.

The rise of spam

At the same time that the commercial use of the internet became more than just an idea (Amazon was launched in 1994), the potential exploits of email became equally obvious as more and more people began to use the medium.

The genius of email was that it was essentially an open platform and standard when it was built. There was no such thing as authentication because the concept of trusting the sender of a message was a given due to email’s academic originators and user base. The progenitors of email couldn’t have imagined the prolific use of the medium today — the sheer scale and velocity of email communications is mind-blowing. But this openness and scale are precisely what drew fraudsters and cyber criminals to abuse the channel.

The term spam was coined in 1993 — not in reference to email but in relation to messages posted to USENET, quite accidentally at first, but then maliciously. Soon this term was applied to all forms of Unwanted Commercial Email (UCE). By the late 90s, email spam was a massive problem and several different approaches were used to try and curtail its growing volume. Companies like MAPS were born to identify and list spam sources (IPs and mail servers) generating millions of unwanted messages. Software such as SpamAssassin was released in 2001 as an off-the-shelf set of filters capable of identifying spam sent to a receiving domain. ISPs and mailbox providers began keeping tabs of IPs sending massive amounts of spam as a means to identify and stop them at their source, however temporarily.

As you can imagine, these measures helped but the onslaught continued mostly without cessation to this day. It was estimated that nine out of every ten messages back then was spam. This metric is more or less unchanged today. Some measures, like Cisco’s Talos, put the ratio at 85 percent spam to 15 …read more

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