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DMA, ensnared in email spam traps, serves as a warning to others

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The Direct Marketing Association, which promotes marketing best practices, has found itself in the embarrassing position of being flagged for sending out email spam. DMA also had its Internet Protocol addresses blacklisted and blocked. The offenses were first noted last summer and extended through the fall, with emails from DMA prompting numerous security complaints and hitting so-called “honeypots”—traps set to detect spam, according to a document circulated internally by DMA and reviewed by BtoB. It culminated in all four DMA dedicated IP addresses being blocked by spam watchdog group the Spamhaus Project as verified spam sources. To make time to clean its lists, DMA continued to send emails to a portion of its marketing list on shared IP addresses provided by its email service provider, Yesmail Interactive. DMA has now shifted back to its dedicated IP addresses, and according to Yesmail VP-marketing Intelligence and Measurement Jason Warnock, email sent through DMA's resurrected IP addresses were reaching inboxes at a rate of 94.5% as of mid-February. But the question remains: How could one of the premier U.S. marketing organizations work itself into such a situation to begin with? “It was brought up, they were working on it and everybody was unhappy,” said Bruce Biegel, a member of DMA's board and managing director of marketing consultancy Winterberry Group. But Biegel indicated he still doesn't have the whole story. “Where did this happen in the administration process?” Biegel said. “What were the signals that were missed that had to be paid attention to? This is question not just for DMA but for any marketer.” The organization has long suffered internal disagreements over the frequency of its emails, as well as complaints from recipients about email volume, according to a person familiar with the matter. Larry Kimmel, CEO of DMA, referred requests for an interview to Debbie Sharken, DMA's senior VP-CMO, who insisted on issuing only a statement. According to that statement, DMA was made aware of the issue in November, “and we immediately responded to remedy the situation, resolving it within two weeks. We take matters like this very seriously and immediately put additional hygiene processes in place to correct the matter and ensure that we avoid any similar situation in the future.” However, DMA's internal document cites several alerts from Yesmail dating to Aug. 3, when Yesmail was notified by private spam protection company Cloudmark Inc. that it had received “a lot of complaints stemming from DMA messaging program.” Those problems extended until Nov. 29, when Yesmail again notified DMA that Spamhaus had listed its emails as spam. “You do realize what a spam trap is?” said Luciano Rossini, a spokesman for Spamhaus, referring to honeypots. “These addresses could not possibly ever have opted in to any list. If DMA's emails were hitting numerous spam traps, it means they were out-and-out spamming. This is quite incredible.” DMA's emails also were flagged by the Spam and Open Relay Blocking System, another watchdog group, according to the internal DMA document reviewed by BtoB. Chris Thompson, manager of Spamhaus' Block List team, said the organization will want to investigate how it developed such a faulty database to begin with, then failed to monitor its cleanliness. “The only shortfall we see in their process—and we do consider it a significant problem—is that there is nothing pertaining to the initial acquisition of email addresses to the DMA's list,” Thompson said after reviewing the internal DMA document. “Nearly all the rest of the online world insists on opt-in only, where the address owners give their prior, informed consent to have their email addresses added to a particular mailing list.” Thompson said best practices include double opt-in processes that include a follow-up confirmation. “There must have been some early warning signs that were flat-out missed, if not ignored,” said Morgan Stewart, CEO of email consultancy Trendline Interactive. “Spamhaus doesn't try to sabotage people, even though they are sometimes accused of it. They try to catch people who are truly flying blind and aren't paying attention to what's going on and [so] become default spammers. “You don't get into bad trouble if you're watching the ship,” Stewart said. “But somebody wasn't paying attention. Shame on them. Hopefully this will be a wakeup call.”
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