What You Should Know About the Anti-Spam Laws in the US

Anti-spam laws. Quick. What do you know about them? We all know about spam, but do you know anything about the laws regarding spam?

It is easy for many business owners who send marketing emails to overlook some aspects of email marketing anti-spam laws. It is only a bunch of email addresses — so what could possibly go wrong?

According to American lawmakers, a lot can go wrong!

The pursuit of tighter privacy controls seems never to end. When you pair that customer antipathy with aggressive marketing, you get strict laws against unsolicited marketing, spamming, and other questionable email marketing practices.

CAN-SPAM Act of 2003

A hand displaying the word "stop spam" representing compliance with the CAN SPAM Act, U.S. anti-spam laws.

The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act of 2003 was one of the first laws passed to address the growing email spam problem and keep the email marketing industry from turning into the Wild West.

A “commercial electronic mail message” and a “transactional (or relationship) message” are two structures protected by the Act — anything that contradicts this structure is generally considered spam.

It is a commercial email if the primary motive for sending it is to promote and sell a product or service. A transactional email updates a previously agreed-upon commercial transaction or relationship.

For example, this might include sending customers order updates or a B2B client a reminder about an upcoming meeting.

The Act also overrode pre-existing state anti-spam laws. The anti-spam laws at the state level defined spam by number or content (e.g., unsolicited bulk emails or commercial emails), leaving many attacks unpunished.

7 Keys to CAN-SPAM Compliance

Here are the fundamental principles you must follow to prevent having your commercial emails labeled as spam:

Do not use incorrect or misleading header information

The information in your header must be accurate. The “From:” field must identify your business, the “To:” and “Reply-To:” fields, and the routing information (originating domain and email address) must be accurate as well.

Do not use misleading subject lines

The subject line of a commercial email should not misrepresent its contents. In other words, you should not promise one thing in the subject line and then deliver something completely different once the email is viewed.

Declare the email as an ad

The law allows you some wiggle room in this area since you do not have to explicitly declare a commercial email as an ad. But technically, you can’t make it appear non-promotional when the primary purpose is to promote products or services.

Do not hide your location

Your physical address (current street address or PO box registered with USPS) must be included in your commercial email.

Tell recipients how to unsubscribe from your emails

This is perhaps the most important CAN-SPAM requirement. Your commercial emails should clearly describe how the recipient can opt out of receiving future emails from you. You cannot ask for a fee or additional personal information or compel your recipients to visit more than one page to unsubscribe.

Honor your recipients’ opt-out requests promptly

You only have ten business days to comply with a recipient’s request to opt out of receiving commercial emails.

Keep track of what people are doing on your behalf

You cannot outsource your legal responsibilities even if you engage another business to handle your email marketing. You are still responsible for any commercial emails sent on your behalf.

Penalties for CAN-SPAM violations

Every individual email that violates the CAN-SPAM Act is punishable by a fine of up to $42,530. If you are found guilty of more serious violations, such as harvesting email addresses, you may even have to serve time behind bars.

The Last Word

Although this might sound scary and puzzling, you are likely already in compliance if you are using a proper email service provider. The Act is primarily aimed at spammers and is intended to deter them from spamming people with unsolicited emails.

Nonetheless, there are a few quirks in the laws that even the best-intentioned marketers can inadvertently fail to understand — and that is why it is critical to know how to stay compliant.