Spam Slayer: Track That E-Mail

Tip of the Month

Are You Spamming? Watch what you write in e-mail, or your message might be mistaken for spam and blocked. Avoid using excessive profanity and words typically found in junk e-mail. For example, too many instances of the words free or mortgage and the phrase one-time offer might trigger a spam filter to block your message.

I admit it, sometimes I lie and say "no" when annoying business contacts ask "Did you receive my e-mail?" I consider my digression a polite way of prioritizing a busy workday when I don't have the time to respond. Sadly, my days of deception are coming to an end.

Rampell Software has taken some of the mystery out of e-mail with a service called DidTheyReadIt. The monthly subscription service allows you to track your electronic missives. You're alerted when a message is viewed--and the recipient doesn't know you're tracking the correspondence.

Besides exposing fibbers like me, DidTheyReadIt eliminates the worry that our e-mail has been blocked by an overzealous spam filter or mistaken as spam by the recipient and deleted. After all, e-mail incorrectly identified as spam by junk mail filters can be even more annoying than spam itself.

The DidTheyReadIt service costs $50 for a year's subscription, but you can send ten messages for free as a trial.

The concept is not new. Similar services such as ReadNotify, ReturnReceipt, and MSGTAG have been around for a while. These sites offer "return receipt" services that differ in price, compatibility, technology, and function. DidTheyReadIt is the newest offering in the field.

Service Basics

I've been testing DidTheyReadIt for the past couple of weeks with a complimentary account courtesy of Rampell Software. Even though I've felt a bit like a creep for secretly tracking e-mail sent to friends and colleagues, and I've experienced a few shortcomings in the system, I've found DidTheyReadIt to be a powerful tool for verifying that e-mail gets delivered.

Of course, on the receiving end, there are ways to reject return receipts--at least the ones that are forthcoming about their request. Microsoft Outlook provides that option. But DidTheyReadIt uses a clandestine method to track your messages.

You can associate DidTheyReadIt's service with any e-mail account that you register with its Web site. Then you use the service in one of two ways: downloading a program or adding code to e-mail addresses.

You can download a small software program called DidTheyReadIt Background Tracker, which automatically tracks all e-mail sent while you use your PC. You can easily change the e-mail address associated with your DidTheyReadIt account, so you can track e-mail sent from multiple e-mail accounts.

Or you could skip the software download and track e-mail by adding .didtheyreadit.com to the end of any e-mail address you mail to. For example, you might address an e-mail message to name@isp.com.didtheyreadit.com--but it shows up in the recipient's in-box as name@isp.com with no hint that you're tracking the e-mail. As soon as the recipient opens your message, you're notified via e-mail.

Your notification includes the time your e-mail was opened, how long it was open on the recipient's machine, how many times the e-mail was viewed, the recipient's current Internet protocol address, and roughly where the recipient is geographically located.

You can also log onto DidTheyReadIt's Web-based management site and view tracking information.

How It Tracks E-Mail

E-mail programs like Eudora, Outlook, Outlook Express, and Netscape allow you to request a return receipt from the recipient. Programs do this by simply adding code to your e-mail that pops up a message on the recipient's end asking them whether they want to send a message indicating the e-mail was opened.

DidTheyReadIt embeds a Web bug, traditionally used by e-mail marketers, into outbound messages. Web bugs are imperceptible image files that, when activated with the opening of the e-mail message in which they reside, request information from a server to verify an e-mail message is opened and for how long. People receiving e-mail messages that use DidTheyReadIt have no idea the e-mail is being tracked.

DidTheyReadIt goes a step further than standard e-mail return receipts. Its Web bugs can also detect the IP address unique to the e-mail recipient's computer, allowing DidTheyReadIt to make an educated guess as to where the e-mail recipient is located.

In my informal tests, DidTheyReadIt accurately guessed my correspondents' locations and how long e-mail messages were viewed.

Bugs and Compatibility

Although the service worked most of the time, I encountered some glaring problems.

If you send e-mail to someone whose e-mail client doesn't support HTML-formatted messages, you'll never know if your e-mail made it. DidTheyReadIt cannot display a Web bug in e-mail clients configured to display text only (no graphics), rendering Web bugs useless and making tracking via Web bugs impossible.

But the biggest problem I experienced with DidTheyReadIt software was compatibility. In multiple tests of the service, messages sent from Lotus Notes to recipients who use AOL 9.0 Optimized, Mozilla Thunderbird, and Netscape 7.1 e-mail clients showed up blank. The e-mail arrived, but message bodies were missing. Additionally, DidTheyReadIt never confirmed the messages were opened.

Rampell Software says that DidTheyReadIt customers have sent 100,000-plus messages, and I was the only one who had that experience. CEO Alex Rampell acknowledges the service isn't foolproof. "DidTheyReadIt works 98 percent of the time," Rampell says.

Another compatibility issue is with corporate e-mail routed through a company's servers. Because the DidTheyReadIt Background Tracker supports only SMTP-based e-mail clients, you need to add .DidTheyReadIt.com to the end of any e-mail address you suspect may not use an SMTP account.

These compatibility concerns might be a good reason to do your own thorough tests before you fork over $50 for a year's subscription to DidTheyReadIt. With a 2 percent margin of error, unfortunately this service will not eliminate e-mail anxiety completely.

Thoughts on Snooping

DidTheyReadIt has already attracted complaints that the service violates the privacy of Internet users because it is very hard to detect. Rampell acknowledges these concerns, and the CEO says his company's intentions are honorable. He maintains that privacy issues are outweighed by positive uses, such as a manager, job-seeker, or parent who appreciates that DidTheyReadIt ensures their e-mail gets read even if the recipient chooses not to reply.

So the next time your boss asks you if you read their e-mail, keep in mind that they may already know the answer.

Q&A

Q. I receive 5000 spam e-mails per day. I get so much spam because I own a domain. It's just a personal domain for fun, but all e-mail directed to my domain comes to me. Spammers are mass e-mailing to my domain and I get about 50 copies of each spam e-mail.

I can't keep up with deleting the spam and my server fills up. I'm forced to pay storage over-usage charges because the spam pushes me over my limit with my service provider.

What can I do about this problem now other than change my e-mail address and dump my domain?
--Elisabeth

A. First, I would find a hosting service with a better spam filter so the massive volumes of crud you're getting gets blocked before it makes it into your account. Second, it's likely when you set up your domain you had any e-mail sent to anything@yourdomainname.com forwarded to you. You need to configure your hosting service to recognize only one or two e-mail addresses.

If too much spam is collecting on your server and it's costing you money in "over-use charges," I suggest you configure your computer's e-mail software to automatically download messages from your server every half hour. Make sure your e-mail client is configured not to save messages on your server.

And if you use Outlook, there's one last thing you can do: Outlook lets you automatically archive e-mail in a designated folder. If you do this, it should help prevent Outlook from freezing up under the weight of too many messages. You can also configure Outlook to automatically delete archived items at daily, weekly, or monthly intervals.

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