Search the FAQ Archives

3 - A - B - C - D - E - F - G - H - I - J - K - L - M
N - O - P - Q - R - S - T - U - V - W - X - Y - Z - Internet FAQ Archives

The Email Abuse FAQ, Version 2.02
Section - 3. Definitions

( Single Page )
[ Usenet FAQs | Web FAQs | Documents | RFC Index | Forum archive ]

Top Document: The Email Abuse FAQ, Version 2.02
Previous Document: 2. Basics
Next Document: 4. Actions
See reader questions & answers on this topic! - Help others by sharing your knowledge
3a. When is it email, and when is it email abuse?

  Email is a tremendously powerful communications tool, used by 
  millions of people in thousands of positive ways.  Unfortunately, 
  such a powerful tool has the potential to be used in other, less 
  productive, ways.  
  Someone sending email incurs no incremental cost;  sending one message 
  costs about the same as sending 100 messages.  Some folks use this 
  feature of email to send messages to thousands, even millions, of 
  people at once.  These are usually advertisements, sometimes sermons 
  on the sender's favorite topic, sometimes pleas for financial 
  assistance or scams intended to defraud the unwitting.  Almost all of 
  these messages go to people who did not ask to receive them.  Also, 
  some people use email in denial-of-service attacks, using various 
  methods to flood someone's emailbox with so  many messages that their 
  email becomes unusable.  These are examples of abuse -of- the email 

  Also, it is possible to impersonate, threaten, disparage, or 
  otherwise harass someone via email.  These are examples of abuse 
  -on- the email system, and are not the subject of this FAQ.

  Notable exceptions to bulk email abuse are legitimate mailing lists,
  where people subscribe to receive messages pertaining to a 
  particular subject.  These lists can be large, and they can account 
  for large numbers of messages being sent, but they are in no way 
  abuse of the email system.  Quite the opposite, in fact - they are a
  perfect example of the productive power of email.

3b. What is 'unsolicited email'?

  Unsolicited email is any email message received where the recipient 
  did not specifically ask to receive it.  

  Taken by itself, unsolicited email does not constitute abuse;  not 
  all unsolicited email is also undesired email.  For example, 
  receiving 'unsolicited' email from a long-lost friend or relative is
  certainly not abuse.  The reason that it is defined separately is 
  that email abuse takes several forms, all of which begin with the 
  fact that the email received is unsolicited.  

  NOTE:  Usenet convention holds that, by posting to a newsgroup, one is
  tacitly soliciting individual, *topical* replies via email.

  The following are examples of soliciting email:

    - posting to Usenet or saying in a chat group:
        "please send me e-mail about foobars"

    - sending email to an advertised auto-reply address:
        "for more information, send email to"

    - filling out a web form which explicitly mentions email:
        "fill this out to get email about foo"
        "fill this out to get on the mailing list about foo"
        "check this box to get on the foo mailing list"

  The following acts DO NOT, by themselves, constitute 'soliciting' 

    - just posting a message to a Usenet newsgroup or any
      other public forum (although individual, *topical* 
      replies to Usenet posts are have long-standing
      status as normal Usenet practice)

    - chatting in IRC or other chat groups

    - simply visiting a web site

    - filling out a survey form at a Web site
      *that does not explicitly say it is for mailings*

    - putting one's email address on any other form, 
      such as product registrations or magazine

    - posting one's email address on a web page (web page
      authors should clearly specify the reason an email
      address appears on the page)

    - entering into a business relationship or conducting a
      business transaction;  for example, purchasing a product
      or service from a company, or downloading a free trial
      version of a software product from a web site.

3c. What is 'bulk email'?

  Bulk email is any group of messages sent via email, with 
  substantially identical content, to a large number of addresses at 
  once. Many ISPs specify a threshold for bulk email:

    ----- 25 or more recipients within a 24-hour period -----

  Once again, taken by itself, bulk email is not necessarily abuse of 
  the email system.  For example, there are legitimate mailing lists, 
  some with hundreds or thousands of willing recipients.

3d. What is 'commercial email'?

  Commercial email is any email message sent for the purposes of 
  distributing information about a for-profit institution, soliciting 
  purchase of products or services, or soliciting any transfer of 
  funds.  It also includes commercial activities by not-for-profit 

3e. UBE, UCE, MMF, MLM... What do they all mean?

  First, a short lesson on the term 'SPAM'.  Spam describes a 
  particular kind of Usenet posting (and canned spiced ham), 
  but is now often used to describe many kinds of inappropriate 
  activities, including some email-related events.  It is technically 
  incorrect to use 'spam' to describe email abuse, although attempting
  to correct the practice would amount to tilting at windmills.  For 
  more on the history of the term, look for  '2.4) Where did the term 
  'Spam' come from?' in 

UBE:  Unsolicited Bulk Email
  Email with substantially identical content sent to many recipients 
  who did not ask to receive it.  Almost all UBE is also UCE 
  (see next). 

  UBE is undoubtedly the single largest form of email abuse today.  
  There are automated email sending programs that can send millions of
  messages a day;  the bandwidth, storage space, and time consumed by 
  such massive mailing is incredible.  One month's worth of mailings 
  from one of the most nefarious bulk email outfits was estimated at 
  over 134 gigabytes, yes that's right, gigabytes.  Each message was 
  sent over the email wires, consuming bandwidth.  Then, each message 
  was either stored locally or 'bounced' back to the sender, taking up
  storage space and even more bandwidth.  Finally, each boxholder was 
  forced to spend time dealing with the message.  

  These are all legitimate, measurable costs, and they are not borne 
  by the sender of the messages.  UBE is, at best, exploitation of 
  email for profit; at worst, theft.  There are currently few 
  regulations regarding UBE;  the potential for growth is open-ended.
  All by itself, UBE could render the email system virtually useless 
  for legitimate messages.

  Some would argue that there is such a thing as 'responsible' UBE; 
  those who honor 'remove' requests and use the lists on 'Remove Me' or 
  'No Spam' web sites would fit their description of 'responsible'.  
  However, due to the types of messages contained in most UBE, and the 
  historic lack of responsibility on the part of the sending 
  organizations, UBE and UCE have earned a reputation as tawdry, widely 
  unpopular methods of disseminating information.

UCE:  Unsolicited Commercial Email
  Email containing commercial information that has been sent to a 
  recipient who did not ask to receive it. 

  This is widely used, and confused with UBE, (see above).  UCE 
  must be commercial in nature but does not imply massive numbers.
  Several ISPs specify a threshold for unsolicited commercial email:

    ----- sending one UCE is a violation -----

  In a specific case, individuals took offense at having been sent 
  commercial messages regarding their web sites.  Their addresses were
  posted for the purpose of comments and suggestions about the site;  
  the messages received were commercial offerings to buy ad space on 
  the site or sell something to the site maintainer.

MMF:  Make Money Fast
  Messages that 'guarantee immediate, incredible profits!', including 
  such schemes as chain letters.

  Originally a problem in "snailmail" and on Usenet, these messages 
  are now expanding into email.  Chain letters and most MMF schemes 
  are illegal, regardless of any claims they might make to the 
  contrary.  They should be reported to the proper authorities.  Also,
  chain letters and MMFs don't work!  No one sends the 5 dollars, and 
  claims of unlimited wealth made by people who then ask -you- for money 
  should be taken with a large grain of salt.  Many chain letters and 
  MMFs are sent by clueless college freshmen - a note to the 
  administrator of their system is often sufficient to 
  cure them.  For the more serious offenders, the US Post Office, 
  Inspection Service - Consumer Fraud Division,  *loves* to hear about
  chain letters!  Send any sightings to, and 
  see their web page at

MLM:  Multi-Level Marketing
  Messages that 'guarantee incredible profits!', right after you
  send them an "initial investment" and recruit others.

  Some of the MMF senders will say, "This isn't one of those illegal 
  get-rich-quick schemes.  No, this is multi-level marketing, and 
  perfectly legal."  However, many MLM schemes are little more than 
  illegal pyramid schemes with a fancy name to confuse the unwitting.
  Particularly popular recently are "Work at Home!" schemes.  Whether 
  or not the offer is legal is not important to this FAQ;  MLM is 
  commercial email, so go ahead and complain.

3f. What is a mailbomb?

  Delivery of enough email to a mailbox to overload the mailbox or 
  perhaps even the system that the mailbox is hosted on.  
  Mailbombs generally take one of two forms.  A mailbox might be 
  targeted to receive hundreds or thousands of messages; this makes it
  difficult or impossible for the victim to use their own mailbox, 
  possibly subjects them to additional charges for storage space, and 
  might cause them to miss messages entirely due to overflow.  This is
  seen as a denial-of-service attack, perhaps also harassment, and is 
  not tolerated by any known service providers.  Alternatively, a 
  message will be bulk-emailed, with the intended victim's address 
  forged in the From: and/or Reply-To: lines of the headers.  The 
  victim is then deluged with responses, mostly angry.

  There is a third, particularly nasty, form of mailbomb.  This one
  forges subscription requests to many mailing lists, all for one recipient.
  The result is a huge barrage of email arriving in the victim's email box, 
  all of it unwanted, but "legitimate".  Many mailing list administrators are
  countering this form of abuse by sending a confirmation email to each
  subscription request, which must be returned in order to be subscribed to
  the list.

3g. What is email harassment?

  Any message or series of messages sent via email that meet the legal
  definition of harassment.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:


Top Document: The Email Abuse FAQ, Version 2.02
Previous Document: 2. Basics
Next Document: 4. Actions

Single Page

[ Usenet FAQs | Web FAQs | Documents | RFC Index ]

Send corrections/additions to the FAQ Maintainer:

Last Update March 27 2014 @ 02:11 PM