Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

When Bad Things Happen To Good ISPs

June 2013

By Mike Gould

There I was, trying to sew up one of the biggest gigs of my career, and nobody was receiving my emails. I could receive just fine, but sending was broken. Worse, nobody was receiving my wife’s emails, which meant I was in the deep digital doghouse. To make matters even worse, I wasn’t receiving any error messages or bounce announcements from my recipients’ email systems. And one of the people I was trying to contact was my point person for customer relations, and she was on vacation, checking email only intermittently. A perfect storm.

So who do you call? As always with email problems, you call your ISP, who shall remain nameless in this discourse for reasons of embarrassment and mercy. Fortunately, my ISP is local and quite responsive. I got them on the phone and learned that one of their clients had used a bad password, had their account hacked, and then used to send out thousands of spam emails. As a result of this, my ISP ended up on a “gray list”, a sort of rogues gallery of email hosts suspected of harboring spammers.

Black and White
This resulted in my outgoing emails being tagged as spam based on the IP address of my ISP. In other words, the receiving email system looked at the address of the sending email system, matched it to a suspected spammer, and refused to accept my emails. In some cases the emails were simply thrown out as trash (“Black Holed”); in others, I received a notice a week later that the emails were languishing in limbo, awaiting a lifting of the gray list ban. In the case of respondents who use umich.edu, they had no idea I was trying to send them things until weeks later when the gray listing was lifted and all the mail arrived at once.

The good news was I (via my ISP) had been gray-listed, not black-listed. There are agencies on the web who receive reports of hosts providing sanctuary to spammers; they investigate and if the hosts are proven to be malefactors, they are put on a more permanent listing that other hosts subscribe to. Most hosts subscribe to black listings and refuse to receive emails from the listed email systems. When you are gray-listed, you can contact other ISPs and explain what happened: it was an accident, it won’t happen in the future, and can we please be friends again?

Things are at this writing back to normal, the incident now an unfortunate memory, learning moment, and article-fodder. So how did I survive this little catastrophe? Multiple email accounts, on two different systems.

Multiple Identity Syndrome
As a University of Michigan retiree, I got to keep my umich.edu email account. It has languished in the three years since my leaving the U, but I figured now was the time to resurrect it, dust it off, and get back in the maize and blue swing of things. In the time since I last used it, the University switched email systems, moving from an in-house system to a custom Gmail application. So I had to review the docs on the UM IT website, figure out how to setup my Apple Mail app to talk to the Gmail host, and clean out three years of neglected email.

Which I did, also setting up my iPad and iPhone to send and receive umich.edu emails. It took a while (which is why I put it off for years) but was well worth it in terms of fall back, back ups, and general peace of mind in knowing that the next time Something Bad happens to my main account, I can jump to Gmail to do my business.

Can You Hear Me Now?
So the moral of the story (I almost wrote “morel” there, as I am getting ready to head north on our annual morel camping trip…): in addition to having backups of data, have a backup plan for infrastructure failures. Most people have this already in the form of an employment account (yourname@yourbiz.com) and a personal account (yourname@gmail.net). If one goes down, you switch to the other and carry on.

If you only have one email account, it is easy enough to set up a second one on another service as a safety net. I would recommend the second account be on another service, as having two Gmail.net accounts won’t help if Gmail takes a fail (which has happened in the past).

Depending on how intensive and crucial to you your email is, you might want to go ahead and set up that second account now, so you are prepared in case of emergency. If you use web-based email, you can have a shortcut in reserve that takes you to your backup system. You can also use the second account to monitor online services you sign up for. If you establish an account with an online retailer and subsequently get a festering heap of spam from them, it is nicer if it is confined to a special account that you can shut down if you are overwhelmed.

One last-ditch effort I also used was the Private Message (PM) function of one of the online forums I am on. I needed to talk to a fellow laserist regarding a possible gig for both of us – I didn’t have his regular contact info, but was able to touch base with him via PM. You can also do this if you are on Facebook or other social media. The hitch is that your correspondent has to be on that system as well.

Mike Gould is hanging on to his umich.edu account, was a mouse wrangler for the U of M for 20 years, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, builds laser display devices, performs with the Illuminatus 2.2 Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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