Friday, September 25, 2009

Email Etiquette: a background picture is worth a thousand groans

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Email Etiquette is a series of blog posts that was nearly titled "Things you've tried to tell your family a million times, and have gotten tired of repeating." Have an email pet peeve that you'd like to see in a future blog post? Send an email to pobox@pobox.com or leave a comment!

Once upon a time, my mother got an email program that had clip art built in. For a period of several months, no message was too large or small to go unembellished with clip art. Failing to find any clip art in her collection that would suit her message content, she could always just fall back to a picture of a cannon.

By and large, email is still a medium that values content over style, at least when you hear from a human and not a company. But, from time to time, we still get that message with pink text on a paisley tiled image background. So, here are Pobox's tips for maximum email enjoyment for all.

Sending images in your messages is great. Grandparents the world over love receiving pictures of their grandbabies. Images are less great the more people you send them to, though. (If you want to spread pictures far and wide, put them on Flickr.) Background pictures, by virtue of going out on every email you send, are thus the worst offenders of the email world. Save background images for your web pages.

When considering your email text, think of it this way. Every email you send is asking someone for something, even if it is only, "Please read this message." When you ask someone for a favor, you want to make it easy for them to do it. So, choose a clear, easy-to-read font, preferably at least 12 pixels large (10 is ok for print, but too small for the screen.) Black text is the easiest to read in a variety of formats. If you need to add color, it should be an accent, like in your signature, not for the whole message text.

What are your email formatting pet peeves?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Keeping Tabs on Released Messages

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Since we began holding messages we caught as spam (many, many years ago now!), a frequent question has been, "Where is the message I released?" To help answer this question, we have added Delivery Status to the Released Messages page. We hope this will help give a little insight about what's happening behind the scenes!

To view Delivery Status, just click "Edit Columns on the Released Messages page, and check "Delivery Status". There are 3 possible states we display: Bounced, Queued or Sent.

If a message is marked Bounced, we tried to deliver it to the address you selected, and it was rejected by your ISP. This could be due to an overfull mailbox, or a problem with your account. If your release bounced, other messages may also be bouncing, so we recommend adding another forwarding address where we can send your messages, and then re-releasing the message. If your other mail is not bouncing, it's possible that the message you're releasing is actually a phishing attempt or virus, and your ISP is rejecting that message, to protect you from a dangerous email.

If a message is marked Queued, it means that Pobox has it flagged for release, but the release hasn't been processed yet. In order to keep the Spam system running smoothly, releases are processed in a batch. But if you have a message that's been marked Queued for more than 20 minutes, please email Customer Support and let us know, and we'll do what we can to get it released, pronto!

A message marked Sent means that your message is being sent. This is what you should nearly always see. However, this is actually the most common "missing" group!

In most cases, the message characteristics that caused us to think the message was spam also caused your ISP to think the message is spam. Usually, these messages can be found in your ISP's Junk Mail or Spam folder. If they aren't, we recommend emailing your ISP and asking them to locate the missing message. If you also add the "Released Time" column to your Released Messages page, you can see what time we sent you the message.

Another reason why a message marked Sent might go missing is if you have multiple forwarding addresses on your account, and you released the message to one other than the one you're checking. In that case, the simplest thing to do is just release the message again.

Released mail is usually delivered immediately, because there's such a small number of messages sent out from those servers. However, from time to time, mail has been backed up by someone releasing a large amount of spam. In those cases, we have seen messages to other users at that ISP get deferred (or temporarily rejected, with a request to retry delivery later.) This is the major reason that we monitor releases; releasing spam can cause other people's legitimate mail to be delayed.

We hope that you'll find this additional little piece of information about Released Messages useful!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Zombies walk the Internet: Today's Pobox mail delay

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This morning, Pobox mail saw processing and forwarding delays. Most messages were delayed no more than 10 or 20 minutes, but we did get reports of a few messages taking an hour or more to be delivered to their final destination. In general, we try to keep delays for your mail to under 5 minutes; most messages are handled within seconds.

Today's delay was caused by a huge surge in traffic, that we've actually been dealing with for over a week, from a botnet. Botnets are massive numbers of computers (also known as zombies), typically people's virus-infected home computers, controlled by remote software for nefarious purposes. Some estimates say as many as one in 4 personal computers connected to the Internet are running botnet software.

This software can be used for different purposes. In our case, the botnet is being used to send spam. They are also commonly used for denial-of-service attacks, where huge amounts of traffic are targeted at servers or a company, with the goal of effectively blocking all legitimate traffic; or behind phishing attacks, where credit card or bank information is collected.

We are making a number of network and security changes to deal with this ongoing attack. There will be a series of brief outages this evening for the website, webmail, outbound SMTP and POP3/IMAP services, as we make upgrades and networking changes to prevent further delays.

Running a PC at home? Make sure that you have up-to-date anti-virus software, and run it regularly. Using a home firewall is also a good preventative step from keeping your computer from being used as part of a botnet. If you're running a Mac, you're probably safe. Thus far, there seems to have only been one Mac botnet, and it came from people downloading "shared" copies of iWork '09 and Photoshop CS4.