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What Are the Rules and Laws Regarding Spam?

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Do you still get emails from people, companies and websites that you have no interest in and that you never asked for? If yes, then you're still being hounded by one of the Internet's oldest problems: spam.

You'd think that by now spam would have been outlawed or something. And you're right: Because it is against the law for companies and advertisers to send out their emails to people whom they don't know or have a relationship with. And beyond that, advertisers that you do have a relationship are still obliged to follow some rules.

But, where did these rules come from, what do they say and do they work?

Canning the other spam.

Who knew the U.S. government had a sense of humor? President George W. Bush signed into legislation the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. It established the national standards for sending emails, specifically for commercial enterprises. The Act tasked the Federal Trade Commission with enforcing the guidelines. CAN-SPAM stands for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act of 2003. As you can tell by the title, you can see where the problem started.

(The real SPAM in a can, the precooked ham-like meat, was around in WWII, is sold in stores worldwide today and is a mainstay in many cultures. Who knew?)

1. They must have your permission to send you their emails.

No one should send you email unless they asked your permission first and you said yes. That can be as simple as you checking a box that says yes on a sign-up form on their website. That process is called opting in (as in, you say yes to the option of receiving emails). Saying no or saying "no more emails, please," is referred to as opting out.

2. They can't use misleading headlines

Advertiser's aren't supposed to mislead you. The "from" and "to headers should be accurate and not lead you think it's from someone other than the true sender. The reply address they use must represent their company or a person who represents the company. (Think about all the bogus emails you receive that break these rules!)

3. They can't trick you with their deceptive messages.

The subject line—what the email is about (supposedly)—should be accurate. Spammers will use all kinds of tricks to get you to open their emails. The worst kind of spam uses lies or deception to get you to open the email...and of course there are the "riches" or "hot sex" teasers as well. But even if an email is from a trusted source (and even if you opted in to receive emails), they can't use deceptive or misleading subject lines.

4. They can't disguise a product ad as an important message.

Advertisers will use every tactic to sell merchandise and services in an email. However, they are not allowed to disguise an ad as a general message or helpful recommendation of some kind. They can't advertise a product without announcing that the email is an actual ad.

5. They have to give you a physical address where you can reach them.

You should be able to trust someone who is sending you email messages. Part of that trust includes you being able to contact the company by regular mail, as old fashioned as that sounds. Any email messages you receive must include a valid, regular mail address associated with the advertiser and established with the United States Post Service. That information should always be at the bottom somewhere.

6. They need to provide you choices when they bring up email marketing.

The rules and regulations favor your right to choose if, how, and when to receive emails from advertisers on a case-by-case basis. So, let's say an advertiser asked permission to send you email communications—and you gave permission. With every email they send after that, the message must include a reminder that you can opt out and end all messages. Also, they must offer simple instructions on how do that. They can't hide or bury it in tiny, unreadable print or bury it in the middle of a long message.

7. They have to remove you fast when you opt out.

This is one rule advertisers fudge on the most, it seems. Once you formally opt out of receiving emails from an online service (be it a bank, magazine or charity organization), they must honor your request within 10 business days; so, if you opted out on a Monday, for example, two Mondays later the emails from the source should end. But unfortunately, we all know how often that's not the case.

On top of that, a company can't hassle you while you're opting out. They cannot charge you to opt out or require any other personal verification, other than your stated request and your email address, which they already have. They also cannot sell or give your email address to some other company or another one of their divisions.

They are responsible for following the rules.

Many advertisers hire other companies and services (third-party vendors) to send emails to their customers and prospects. That doesn't let the company off the hook if their vendors don't follow the established guidelines regarding spam. The advertiser itself is ultimately responsible for adhering to the law. If you were to complain about their email practices, the advertiser cannot use the excuse that "one of our vendors broke the rules."

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