Oh No, You’ve Been (Email) Blacklisted! Now What?

Blacklisting is the email equivalent of being put on Santa’s naughty list. Except the consequences can be much worse than not getting presents: it can keep your business’ emails from getting through to clients, prospects and others. This article will show you how to tell if you’ve been blacklisted, and what you can do about it.

Why good people get on email blacklists

So how did you get on a blacklist in the first place? If it is because you are an incorrigible spammer, well then. But most people reading this article are actually innocent victims of other people’s actions, or make common rookie mistakes. Here are some of the most common reasons you might end up on a blacklist:

Your IP or server was blacklisted. This can happen if spam or excessive activity is detected from your email server. This can particularly be an issue for small businesses using shared hosting, where multiple clients share the same email server and anyone’s behavior could potentially affect your ability to send.

Someone hacked your account. If someone surreptitiously gains access to your account, whether through malware or fakery, they may use your account to send unsolicited email to others. Worse, if the hackers can access your contact list, they may spam your contacts to give their messages the seeming legitimacy of coming from you.

You emailed a spam trap. This is often an issue for people who rent third-party lists, or aren’t as cautious as they should be about acquiring email leads. Spam traps or “honeypots” are email addresses set up for the express purpose of attracting spam messages – they belong to no one, and would have no reason to receive mail otherwise. Send mail to these addresses, and you will be blacklisted. (Note that our DOTS Email Validation product checks your email lists for known traps like these, and is highly recommended for validating and cleaning your email leads.)

You sound too spammy. Even if you aren’t an actual spammer, you could possibly get blacklisted for sounding like one: for example, watch out for breathless subject lines using lots of capital letters, exclamation points and spam catch phrases – here is a good style guide from email vendor Benchmark. You can also get the wrong kind of attention with spammy behaviors such as flooding a recipient’s server with large amounts of email at once.

How can I tell if we are on an email blacklist?

There are numerous online tools such as this one, where you can enter your IP address to checked against major blacklists. Your hosting provider may also offer a blacklist checking tool. Note that there are well over 100 blacklists, and some are much more critical to your email marketing than others.

This article from server support firm rackAID profiles some of the more important ones, which generally fall into one of the following areas:

  • Reputation-based lists: Lists such as SenderScore block messages from IPs based on their accumulated scored reputations for spam-based behavior, plus an evaluation of the email itself.
  • Spam trap-based lists: These include the Spamhaus Block List (SBL), Spamcop, the Barracuda anti-spam list and the Passive Spam Block List (PSBL), all of which are at least partially triggered by sending email to spam traps.
  • Behavior-based lists: The Composite Blocking List (CBL) and the Exploits Block List (XBL) from Spamhaus block IPs based on known spammer behaviors such as dictionary attacks, open proxies or hijacked IP addresses.

Annoyingly, individual organizations may blacklist you as well as a result of perceived spam activity. Usually you will get informed about this when you try to email their domain, with instructions for how to get reinstated.

OK, so how do we get off these email blacklists?

The short form answer is “it depends.” Or, more accurately, visit the website of the offending blacklist and follow their instructions for removal.

In many cases, getting removed from a blacklist is as simple as asking. In other cases, you may need to make sure that the triggering behavior stops first. And in more rare cases, such as reputation-based blacklists, you can’t directly ask to be removed, other than by improving your reputation score over time. No matter what the process is, it will, of course, be important to take care of the problems that originally put you on these blacklists.

Getting on an email blacklist can be costly, but usually not permanent, if you are acting in good faith. In most cases, if you aren’t grossly at fault, getting life back to normal should be relatively straightforward. And remember that we can help you create an email data quality strategy for staying off of these lists in the first place – our technical team is happy to consult with you anytime.