Alleged AOL spammers sound off

Robert Pickering had always thought of the Internet service provider he manages, Fuse, as the largest in southern Ohio, but America Online's new PreferredMail filter saw it as a spammer.

CNET News staff
3 min read
Robert Pickering had always thought of the Internet service provider he manages as the largest in Southern Ohio. But America Online (AOL) saw it as a spammer.

Until this morning, Pickering's ISP, Fuse, was on AOL's new junk email filter called PreferredMail. For a few days, his customers were unable to send email to anyone on the nation's largest online service.

Still, many AOL members are raving about the filter, which automatically stops junk email sent from a list of domain names known for sending spam. Users have the option of accepting junk email by going to the mail area, and checking a box that says, "I want junk e-mail!"

Not everyone has been so pleased with the new service. "I think the motivation behind it is great, but the execution is lousy," said Ron Newman, a computer programmer whose ISP originally landed on the list and whose mail to AOL members went undelivered.

The problem, Newman and Pickering said, is the way the filter works. Any mail sent from the list of about 50 domain names on the PreferredMail list is accepted by AOL's mail servers. Unless a member to whom the mail is addressed has opted to turn off the PreferredMail option, the mail is automatically discarded.

Usually when mail fails to reach its destination, it is automatically bounced back to the originating party. AOL chose not to do that because the bounced mail would clog up AOL's gateways, take down the spammer's ISP, or the ISP that the spammer had put in the mail's return path, wrote Jay Levitt, manager of AOL's mail systems group, in a Usenet post.

The system works fine for most people, but for people like Newman and Pickering it created a disaster.

Pickering, whose ISP was since taken off the list after he complained, said he had no idea Fuse was on the list until it started getting flooded with complaints.

"We started taking hundreds of support calls from the subscriber base saying, 'Why can't I email my friend or my Mom or my Dad at AOL?' We have a customer base. If all of a sudden they can't send email to AOL, they will leave our service."

Pickering added that some members had spammed from his service at various points, but they were stopped. "We have approximately 6,000 customers. A handful of our customers have spammed the Internet."

AOL's policy is to place domain names on the list that have generated "a large volume of complaints over a short period of time," according to company spokesman Andrew Graziani. Pickering said AOL officials told him that there had been 144 complaints in a month about spams from Fuse. Graziani would not reveal the complaint threshold that sends a domain name to the list, saying that would open up the system for abuse.

Graziani also said AOL's policy is to contact people on the list. "If someone was not contacted, that shouldn't have happened."

Despite the glitches, many members who have long complained about unsolicited email junking up their mailboxes love the policy. "Our members are overwhelmingly happy about the new tool," Graziani claimed. "What AOL wants to do is make sure its members have a way to protect themselves from unsolicited junk email."

"Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU. Now our sanity may return to its normal level. I am sure everyone appreciates the new program," read a posting on AOL's internal bulletin board about email.

Lee Levitt, a former AOL member, said he dropped the service "specifically because I was getting way too much junk mail. I would go in every three or four days and delete ten spams and have no other mail. What AOL has done is to by and large given control back to the hands of its customers."

AOL's biggest target has been Sanford Wallace, president of Cyber Promotions, who has an email list of 1.3 million names, 1 million of which are on AOL. The online service is currently in court with Cyber Promotions over blocks AOL placed on domains used by the mass emailer.