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Walmart is one of Brazil’s biggest email spammers

May 2, 2014
Obsession
How We Buy
May 2, 2014

This post was updated with comment from Walmart on May 3 at 8:30am ET, and with further comment from Cloudmark on May 5 at 12:45pm ET. 

Next time you complain about the volume of spam in your email inbox, spare a thought for Brazilians. Brazil offers a vivid illustration of what happens in the absence of robust anti-spam laws.

In February, Brazilians were bombarded with spam from Walmart Brasil (the company spells its name the Portuguese way). Nine out of every 10 marketing emails sent to Brazilians by the company was marked by recipients as spam, according to Cloudmark, an online security firm. Because of the volume of email the giant retailer sends, this made Walmart one of the country’s leading spammers that month.

Walmart Brasil is far from the only culprit. Inboxes in Brazil groan under the weight of much more spam than in other parts of the world, because the country has no laws restricting spam. In Brazil “it is perfectly legal to send bulk email marketing,” says Andrew Conway, a research analyst at CloudMark. “It is a standard technique that everyone uses.”

In the 30 days to April 25, more than half of all emails sent by Englishtown.com.br, a language school, were marked as spam. The same goes for Cartaexpressa.com.br, an email marketing company that’s currently pushing water purifiers. Other big offenders include the magazine and media conglomerate Abril.com.br and the retail chain Americanas.com.br.

Companies seem to take advantage of the lack of anti-spam regulation in Brazil. The quantities of spam from Walmart Brasil outnumbers “by at least an order of magnitude all other spam that I see advertising Walmart from anywhere [else],” says Catherine Jefferson, an independent anti-spam activist and researcher who has worked on the issue for 20 years.

UPDATE: Walmart says “this does not make any sense. Our team follows global best practices regarding email and only send email to customers who have opted in. According to Responsys 99% of our emails are delivered successfully. None of our IP numbers are on blacklists, which would be the case if the numbers you reference are correct.”

UPDATE 2: According to Cloudmark, the percentage of emails from Walmart.com.br identified as spam has now declined to 20%, down from well over 90% early this year and much of last year. Also, as Cloudmark notes, “It is possible that this email was not being sent directly by Walmart, but by some third-party advertising agency or email marketing company that they hired,” Cloudmark’s Conway said, adding, “Walmart may not be tracking the results of third-party campaigns and so may not have been aware of their deliverability problems.”

In countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom, where legitimate email marketing is subject to strict legislation, less than a tenth of marketing emails from big firms are typically marked as spam, according to a recent Cloudmark report:

Email marketing companies using well-managed, opt-in mailing lists will get only 5% to 10% of the emails they send flagged as spam by our system. In Brazil, the better email marketers get 30% to 60% of their outbound email flagged as spam by Cloudmark, and the less careful ones hit 90% to 100%.

And it’s not just wealthy countries that have managed to curb their spam traffic. The importance of well-enforced, well-crafted legislation can be seen in Brazil’s fellow BRIC member, India. Mobile marketing messages via SMS in India declined after the telecom regulator enacted and started enforcing do-not-disturb regulations in 2011. Tweaked over the years, the rules helped one telecom provider cut spam by 99.3%, reports Cloudmark.

Email is trickier, since messages can be more easily and cheaply sent from anywhere in the world. But this problem is not unsurmountable. Anti-spam software can identify and block sources of high-volume spam traffic, but better laws mean that ISPs and software providers don’t have to resort to crude blanket bans, which risk blocking legitimate users as well as spammers. Tougher laws also force marketers to exercise a bit more restraint, so multinational companies in Brazil might come to respect potential customers’ inboxes at least as much as they do elsewhere in the world.

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