Crack down on telemarketers

In today’s South China Morning Post, a letter of mine appeared in the Letters section (page A12), the text of which is reproduced below (with some links added, for easy reference):

Crack down on telemarketers

Today, with so many different channels of communication, we are deluged with unwanted marketing. I wholeheartedly welcome the news that Hongkong Post is launching an opt-out sticker scheme for certain unaddressed circulars (“One way to stop some of that junk mail”, August 25).

However, the real menace is not mail, but telemarketing calls. Telemarketing is the most inconvenient type of marketing because it requires active participation by the receiver, at a time that is convenient to the caller. Why should the public be expected to adjust to the schedules of telemarketers who are selling a product that they most likely do not want or need – and one which they certainly did not solicit?

A few years ago the telecoms watchdog OFTA launched the “Do-not-call” register for pre-recorded messages. It is now high time that it extended this register to include non-recorded – that is, live – calls.

This is hardly a novel idea: do-not-call registers in other countries typically make no distinction between pre-recorded and live telemarketing calls.

This would cause a hue and cry from telemarketers, who would claim they provide a useful service that brings benefits to consumers. Yet that is nonsense; the only beneficiaries are the telemarketers themselves and the companies they represent.

The theft of property is an offence punishable by a prison sentence. I wonder if telemarketers could provide a convincing argument why we should tolerate the theft of our time.

Ali Ebrahim, Mid-Levels

For those who are interested, I’ve uploaded a scan of the relevant page.

Mailing Lists and Email Deliverability

I subscribe to a number of moderated lists, and one of the poor practices that I see is untimely moderation of email. When list messages are not moderated quickly, there are two major pitfalls that end users can experience of which many list moderators may not even be aware.

The first of these is that most users sort their mailboxes by the Date: header, not the date that the message was received at the user’s inbox. This means that messages which are a few days old and have just been let through the moderation queue may show up a couple of pages above the newest messages in the user’s email client or webmail. This means that if a message that is 3 days old is approved, it shows up near other messages that are 3 days old that have already been read, not near the most recent messages. It is very easy to miss these messages and not read them, especially if the user’ unread mail count is consistently greater than zero.

Second, and perhaps more significantly, if the Date: header on mail is significantly (usually 24 hours or more) older than the current time, this can actually affect deliverability of email because spam filters use the difference between the Date: header and the current time as a criteria to evaluate the likelihood that a message is spam. A common characteristic of spam messages is that the Date: header is incorrect. Here is a real world example:

X-Spam-Status: No, hits=2.3 required=3.5 tests=DATE_IN_PAST_96_XX autolearn=disabled version=3.002004

The above message was moderated more than 4 days after it was sent into the queue, and you can see that SpamAssassin gave it a score of 2.3 (out of a required 3.5 to categorise as spam). Another single rule triggered could have caused the message to get sent to the spam folder. Here’s an example of where that happened:

X-Spam-Status: Yes, hits=4.4 required=3.5 tests=DATE_IN_PAST_96_XX,HTML_IMAGE_ONLY_32,HTML_IMAGE_RATIO_06,HTML_MESSAGE,HTML_TAG_BALANCE_BODY autolearn=disabled version=3.002004

Had this message been moderated quickly, it would not have incurred a point score of 2.3 for being so old, and would have been below the threshold of 3.5 required to classify it as spam.

In short, the lesson to mailing list administrators is that it is crucial to moderate messages in a timely manner so that users can easily notice the mail, and also so that the mail actually gets delivered to an inbox rather than to a spam folder.