Mailblocks Finds Its Messages Blocked

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Waiting for an e-mail that hasn't arrived? Fear important e-mail isn't reaching you at all? You're not alone. Those are problems facing some users of Mailblocks Challenge/Response spam-fighting service, who have found the system a little too challenging.

The system, which requires e-mail senders to meet a "challenge" before being able to directly contact Mailblocks users, was being stymied by the spam filters at major ISPs, including AOL and EarthLink. The ISPs were inadvertently delivering challenge messages to users' spam folders, instead of to their inboxes. That created an e-mail limbo where the users didn't know that people were trying to reach them, and senders didn't know their messages were not being read.

Both AOL and EarthLink say the problem has been corrected, though that claim is disputed by at least one user.

Mailblocks' Challenge/Response system requires senders attempting to contact Mailblocks users to respond to a challenge e-mail to prove that they are a legitimate correspondent. Once the challenge--which typically involves retyping a sequence of numbers--is met, the sender's e-mail is delivered to the Mailblocks user. Before the challenge is met, the e-mail message sits in the "pending" folder, where it can be accessed by the Mailblocks user. Mailblocks also allows users to create "whitelists" of users who will not be challenged, by adding those e-mail addresses to your address book.

Mailblocks, which was acquired by AOL in August, costs $9.95 per year with 15MB of storage, or $24.95 per year with 100MB of storage. Other software programs that use the challenge and response method are AllSpamGone, KnockKnock, and MailMender.

E-Mail Limbo

"I read about challenge/response and thought this was the ultimate solution to get rid of all spam," says Paul Altman, a computer consultant in Florida, who decided to sign up for Mailblocks in September. "Anyone is welcome to e-mail you, but they have to be a human being."

Within one day of signing up for Mailblocks, however, Altman says he ran into problems. "People were writing to me, and I was never getting the messages," he says. "I asked them, and they weren't getting the challenges."

Altman realized that the messages sent to him were simply sitting in his pending mail folder. And the challenges that Mailblocks was sending back to those correspondents? They were getting marked as spam by both AOL and EarthLink and were delivered to junk mail folders instead of the users' inboxes.

"We're still examining the problem, we're taking a look at what occurred," says Nicholas Graham, a spokesperson for both AOL and Mailblocks. He says that the problem has now been corrected. "It was not a long-standing or recurring problem," he says. "It was very brief."

Altman disputes the claim that the problem has been resolved, though he no longer uses Mailblocks. He was contacted by a Mailblocks representative on October 22, after PC World forwarded his contact information to the company while discussing this story. Altman still believes Mailblocks has not fixed the problem, and says he spoke to a Mailblocks tech support representative last week who told him just that.

Searching for a Solution

When AOL first acquired Mailblocks in August, Graham says, AOL became aware that the challenge messages were being delivered to spam folders instead of to users' inboxes, he says. At the time, AOL reconfigured the return path of the e-mail messages so they would be delivered to the correct location, he says. "We recognize that these e-mails should be considered legitimate e-mails that our members should be able to receive," he says.

Altman says his problems occurred in late September, well after AOL had purchased Mailblocks. Once he realized that his correspondents were not receiving the challenge e-mail, he decided to test the system himself. He sent an e-mail to his Mailblocks account from his own EarthLink e-mail address, and found that the Mailblocks challenge was directed into his EarthLink spam folder.

He e-mailed Mailblocks' tech support to report the problem, and was startled by the reply. "They wrote back and said, 'Hey, that happens with some ISPs, why don't you turn off the challenge/response and just manually add the e-mail addresses of people you already know to your address book?' I was taken aback. It was as if they were admitting their service doesn't work," he says. "It's like I bought a car that's great in every respect except I can't turn the key and get it to start."

AOL became aware that the problem was reoccurring in early October, Graham says. "Because of a glitch about a week ago, we did notice that challenge/response e-mails from Mailblocks were being marked as spam. We had to relist the IP addresses that Mailblocks is using to send challenges," he says.

EarthLink became aware of the problem only after the company was contacted by AOL regarding this PC World story, but says the company will have it fixed by the time this story is published. "We're whitelisting [AOL and Mailblocks] challenges, and they're whitelisting ours," says Jerry Grasso, an EarthLink spokesperson. EarthLink offers its own challenge/response system as an optional part of its spam protection for its users.

Both AOL and EarthLink say they had not received any user complaints about this issue until notified of Altman's problems by PC World.

After becoming frustrated with Mailblocks' response to his problems, Altman says he requested a refund, a request that was denied. However, after hearing of Altman's complaints, Graham said the company would be in touch with him and will refund his money if he is still unsatisfied with the Mailblocks service.

Graham also says that AOL has not decided exactly how Mailblocks will be integrated into AOL's product offerings, but says the process will take place later this year and into early next year. "We're still looking into the various options," he says. "We acquired Mailblocks because it is an award-winning, industry-leading service. Right now it continues to operate the same way it did before we acquired it, and current users will continue to be able to use the same kind of Mailblocks features they use now."

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