Spam Slayer: Opting Out Is Hard to Do

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Avoid Unnecessary Risks. By playing free online sweepstakes games, you could be inviting spam into your in-box and asking telemarketers to call you at home. Enter GroupLotto and, according to the site's privacy policy, you agree to receive telemarketing calls and e-mail from GroupLotto and its advertising partners. The terms say you'll get telemarketing calls even if you're signed up for the national Do Not Call Registry.

Case History of an Opt-Out

It took me four weeks, five phone calls, and 25 minutes on the phone to opt out from receiving commercial e-mail from My Sony, a membership rewards program I signed up for with the entertainment Goliath.

First, I clicked the "unsubscribe" link at the bottom of one of My Sony's weekly messages. But when that didn't work--after several tries--I tried another tactic. I called the phone number accompanying the New Jersey postal address listed at the bottom of the My Sony e-mail messages. I was told to call a second phone number. This number required navigation of voice prompts and being placed on hold for a couple of minutes.

Finally, I was given an "event ID number" and directed to call Sony's New York office. There, a woman named Heidi said she couldn't help me, but took down my name and e-mail address. The next day she sent me an e-mail with a toll-free number to call to unsubscribe.

After a quick phone call to that number, I'm now officially unsubscribed--or so I hope. As I write this, it's been less than a week. We'll see if the regular e-mailing shows up.

The Opt-Out Saga

It should have taken only one click. The federal CAN-SPAM Law requires that companies make it easy to opt out of commercial e-mail. The law also mandates that would-be spammers stop sending you e-mail within ten business days of your unsubscribing. But apparently my experience with My Sony is not unique, and many other companies are slow to comply with CAN-SPAM.

In a similar test by Jupiter Research earlier this year, e-mail marketing messages kept coming from 16 percent of the 55 firms studied, even after the recipient had opted out. The number is distressing because these were Fortune 500 companies, not the Vi@gra peddlers and fly-by-night M0rtg@ge brokers who fill our in-boxes with crud.

It has always been my advice that the best way to handle unwanted e-mail is to filter, ignore, and delete it. Since the passage of CAN-SPAM I've been curious whether opting out would make a difference.

Sadly, my own informal tests and Jupiter Research's data prove one should still be skeptical when opting out of spam messages and e-newsletters that are no longer of interest.

David Daniels, research director at Jupiter Research, disagrees with me and thinks I shouldn't be so doubtful. He says people should trust e-mail opt-out features. Legitimate companies are getting better about streamlining unsubscribe requests, he says. "Companies aren't intentionally trying to annoy you," Daniels says. CAN-SPAM Law compliance is improving among Fortune 500 companies, he says.

More Testing

Curious to test the opt-out process under the CAN-SPAM Law, I used a fresh e-mail address to sign up for dozens of e-mail newsletters, enter online raffles, and post indiscriminately on the Web.

Within a month I was receiving a healthy mix of spam and e-mail newsletters from everyone from Icon Films hawking the movie The Passion of The Christ to adult Web sites selling sin. At peak, I got 163 solicited and unsolicited commercial e-mail messages in a week.

Next, I spent a day unsubscribing from every single e-mail list. Although I found some nonfunctional unsubscribe links and a smattering of spam illegally lacking an unsubscribe feature, I was able to cut my e-mail load to 66 messages two weeks later.

In all, seven firms continued to send commercial e-mail after I opted out using the method indicated on their messages. One firm, the self-described "loan-related Web site" LendingUniverse, apologized when I called to ask why I couldn't unsubscribe. "We do our best to honor our users' requests," said Fred Mikan, chief technical officer for LendingUniverse. Other firms I was able to contact blamed the continued e-mail on technical problems with their opt-out mechanisms.

Sony Responds

A Sony spokesperson said the company was experiencing some technical problems with its opt-out mechanism. But the reason I couldn't unsubscribe from My Sony was because I didn't follow the opt-out directions.

When I clicked "unsubscribe" at the bottom of the My Sony e-mail, I was taken to a Sony Web site that instructs, "To unsubscribe from the My Sony program, please enter your e-mail address." Next to the field where I entered my e-mail address was a Continue button that took me to a five-question exit survey requesting I explain my reason for unsubscribing.

I had no interest in filling out the survey. But because I didn't even scroll through it, I missed seeing the Submit button at the bottom of the page--and you have to click there to actually unsubscribe.

The Sony spokesperson agreed this opt-out process could be confusing and said the company would change its unsubscribe process to make it easier.

Lessons Learned

My advice is still the same: Beware even of spam that offers an opt-out option that supposedly ceases the barrage. Many spam messages invite you to click on a link or respond to the message, leading you to believe you have just unsubscribed. Disreputable junk e-mailers love this trick, because it confirms your e-mail address is valid. You may no longer see e-mail from the original spammer, but you're guaranteed to get more crud from a dozen more dirt bags.

It's okay to opt out, so long as you can trust the company that's sending you e-mail. But sometimes even that doesn't help. Even after I spoke with LendingUniverse about opting out, I'm still getting its e-mail.

Here's your tip: When in doubt, filter it out.

Note: PC World newsletters are sent only to subscribers and include a link to the unsubscribe page. PC World marketing e-mail includes a link to the opt-out page. Both unsubscribe and opt-out requests are effective immediately. Our sweepstakes entries include an option to decline marketing offers. For more information, read our privacy policy. --Editor

Q&A

Q. I have set up spam rules in Microsoft Outlook Express 6 on my laptop while traveling. When I return home, how do I transfer the laptop message rules to my desktop PC? Both are operating with OE6 under Windows XP.
--David S.

A. If you've got the will, there's a way. Here's how to transfer your Outlook and Outlook Express e-mail filter rules across PCs.

For Outlook, close any open Office applications and go to the Windows XP Start menu. Choose Programs, Microsoft Office, Microsoft Office Tools, Microsoft Office 2003, Save My Settings Wizard. Follow the instructions in the Wizard. At the second screen, choose "Save the settings from this machine" and click Next. Click Finish; the Wizard will now gather up your setting information and package it in a .ops file. You need to transfer that .ops file to your other computer, perhaps via a LAN or a floppy disk.

To import these settings, go to the PC you want to transfer the rules to and open its Wizard. At the second screen, choose "Restore previously saved settings to this machine" and click Next. Now, browse to the location of the .ops file you previously created and click Finish.

For Outlook Express, go to the Windows XP Start menu and choose Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Files and Settings Transfer Wizard. Follow the instructions and select only the OE settings to transfer.

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