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Terms of Service Violation: Why won't my email provider tell me what I did wrong?

I had a free email account for THIRTEEN YEARS. Last month I was suddenly
unable to login. One option offered was “Forgot password?”. I took that route
and after a couple of screens I got a message saying that I needed to contact
customer support. I did. Two days later, I was told that my account had been
canceled for violating TOS (Terms of Service)? No explanations whatsoever. I
answered asking what violation I had committed. 3 days later I got a message
saying they could not tell me any more and that was that. Fortunately, I had
absolutely nothing valuable with them.

I have enough articles on the dangers of using free email accounts that I’m
not going to belabor that point here.

This comment caught my eye because it highlights a very frustrating problem
that many people face when situations like this happen: you’ve apparently done
something wrong, but they won’t tell you why.

Believe it or not, there’s actually a reason they won’t tell you.

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Obviously, the first thing you might do if your account is closed for “Terms of Service” (TOS) violation is to go review the TOS.

“By divulging the details of the rules, an email service provider would be helping spammers spam.”

Unfortunately, the TOS is typically written in fairly general language that can often be interpreted several different ways. But it’s possible that you might discover the line you’ve crossed therein.

The problem is that if you don’t, they probably won’t tell you what you did.

Here’s why:

You could be a spammer trying to “reverse engineer” the specific rules, so as to to avoid tripping them in the future.

Let’s say (and I’m making this up) there’s a rule that you can’t use the word “pickles” in more than 25 consecutive emails. If you do, the assumption would be that you’re spamming on behalf of the pickle industry, and thus violating the TOS. (Because I know people sometimes don’t read for comprehension I have to stress: I am making this up. There’s probably no rule against “pickles”, and rules probably do not count the number of successive emails using a specific term. This is just a made up example.)

You invite 50 of your friends to a party and send 50 separate emails all of which say “by the way, would someone bring pickles”.

Account closed due to TOS violation.

You’re innocent.

Not knowing about the anti-pickles rule you email your service provider and ask. They say, “sorry, you broke a rule, and we can’t tell you more”.

Why?

Well, let’s say you were a pickle-spammer. If the email provider would tell you “no more than 25 consecutive emails mentioning pickles” – you now know how send your spam by working around that rule.

By divulging the details of the rules, an email service provider would be helping spammers spam.

As a pickle spammer you would now know to send 20 mails at a time, separated by something pickle-free that would reset the count of pickle-related emails so as not to exceed the limit of 25 in a row.

And the email service provider helped you to do that by answering your question.

Now, you’re not a spammer. But the email service provider has no way to know that.

Thus, they can’t answer the question. From anyone.

Now, my made up pickle example is, of course, oversimplified. There are thousands of rules, and they’re typically more complex than “send more x about y in a row” kind of rules. But the concept still applies: if the email service provider were to answer the question, then spammers could – over time – build a complete picture of what the rules are, and thereby skirt them.

The result would be more spam.

Frustrating as it is, that’s the reason.

Don’t bother asking why.

Definitely follow your options, if you have any, to regain access to your account, but it’s pointless to ask what TOS you violated, as you’ll likely not get an answer.

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15 comments on “Terms of Service Violation: Why won't my email provider tell me what I did wrong?”

  1. But, even in your made up example, I would like to think that that could at least say “our system detected spam generated from your account”.

    Of course, that would probably just lead to “but I’m not a spammer” arguments.

    My wife went through this once with Yahoo Answers. All she did was spend a few minutes here and there during the day to answer questions in a programming group. After a couple of months, she got the “your account was closed due to TOS violations”, and a refusal to tell her what rule she violated. Very frustrating indeed.

    The terms of service are public information (even if details such as “25 pickles in a row” might not), so I would like to think that service providers should at least have to tell you which rule you violated. Otherwise, what’s to stop them from using “TOS violation” any time they simply want to cancel your account?

    While “it would be nice” if they gave fair warning, obviously that’s not happening. They’re simply not required to. Among other things this lack of customer support is simply one more “price” of free email accounts (though even paid accounts can to this, but at least you typically have some kind of recourse). In the extreme, yes, “TOS Violation” could be used to close an account for nonspecified reasons.

    Leo
    18-May-2010

    Reply
  2. You can’t complain, it is a FREE! account. Just unplug your high speed modem for 5 mins, get a new IP address and create a new account, for FREE!

    Reply
  3. Perhaps due to malware/viruses his system and systems that he used to logon were compromised. Whether it be his home unit or the LAN at work?

    Reply
  4. I understand what you’re saying but this just seems to me to be evidence of a seriously flawed system. Even though the account is “free” the provider is obviously generating income from offering the service – through sponsored ads or some similar mechanism. As such a certain level of service can be expected. Clearly this kind of “service” ends up being punitive towards innocent parties. Not sure exactly how the problem can be addressed but it’s really a fly in the ointment and as people gain more awareness of the problem I would think they would be forced to find a better solution.

    People need to vote with their feet – which they are not doing.

    Leo
    19-May-2010

    Reply
  5. The funny thing about this problem is, spammers seem to know the workarounds. I had a rarely used account suspended for reasons unknown, but the account provider was good enough to restore my account after some messaging. The funny thing is the fact that the same email service (one of the top three) has been a heaven for spammers. About half of the spam in my inbox comes from this service, bypassing their filters, including some very obvious ones.

    Actually a very high percentage of spam does not actually come from where it looks like it came from. The “From:” address is typically spoofed. So that mail that looks like it from some random person @hotmail.com, for example, may never have originated there or even come close to Hotmail.

    Leo
    19-May-2010

    Reply
  6. Here’s an idea to protect yourself against such an eventuality. Get a second email account with a different provider (eg GMX if you have Hotmail) and arrange for all your emails to be forwarded to that new account, and also copy to there a BCC copy of all emails you send. That way, if your main email account should be closed or you are locked out, you will at least have a copy of all your correspondence. I haven’t done this myself yet but I think I’ll set it up just in case.

    Reply
  7. The root problem as far as I’m concerned is not spam but the utterly imbecilic notion that phenomena such as spam can be infallibly modeled by a set of deterministic rules. Virtually every observable attribute of spam can also be manifested by ordinary exchanges between innocent users. It’s the classic logical fallacy known as affirming the consequent, i.e., you take a known effect B of some cause A and then argue that the presence of B is evidence of A, ignoring the fact that B may have other causes apart from A (law enforcement authorities specialize in that type of fallacy). If a piece of bone-headed software determines that some user is guilty of spam, then at the very least a manual inspection of the evidence should be performed by something approximating a human intellect before some innocent user is ejected into the cold.

    I agree with you, but that takes people and quickly becomes too costly to expect of a free service. You’ll not that we typically only hear about this type of thing from the free services. If other services are doing it then they either are, as you say, manually reviewing potentially spamming account, or have a formal appeals process and support contact to force that human intervention.

    Leo
    19-May-2010

    Reply
  8. There could be another reason why the email provider won’t tell you why they closed your account – a legal one. In corporate america, employees are disciplined or fired every day without knowing exactly why. Many corporations have zero tolerance rules against sending, viewing, storing, or forwarding inappropriate emails, or web sites. And this often includes many things other than porn. Corporate lawyers advise their managers not to disclose the exact reasons for a dismissal, since doing so is assumed to be an accusation, and can lead to law suits. Companies know that dismissal (or discipline) is harder to fight if you know exactly what you’ve been accused of. At best, the employee may be given a general reason for his dismissal. I suspect the email suppliers may work under similar rules.

    Yes, I know that the above logic may not make sense, but since when does our legal system make much sense! I’m a retired Engineer and Manager from a very corporation, and I used to see this every day.

    Reply
  9. Unfortunately for those with Yahoo accounts, the broken rule may not be in actual email, but rather in the Yahoo Answers site. It seems a little unfair to users to suddenly discover they’ve lost the use of their email account due to a non-email mistake which they sometimes don’t even understand.

    Reply
  10. This guy may have indeed been spamming. You can get malware on your computer, that will cause you to send out thousands of spam emails. They use web crawlers to build huge spambots consisting of tens of thousands of computers. All you have to do is visit the wrong website or chat room, and Bam you’re now part of a huge spambot. I’m not saying this did happen, but it is possible. There are millions of people right now who are unknowingly part of a spambot.

    Reply
  11. Actually, does anyone know if there is an easy way to tell if your computer has been zombied? (made an unwitting part of a spamnet).

    A while ago I received some spam apparently from myself. I did all my usual scans, and some online ones just to make sure. Even looked at my upload figures on my ISP’s website to see if they had changed much over the previous months (they hadn’t), and came up with nothing. So in the end I just figured that someone who had my email address was either a spammer or had been zombied.

    I think I remember Leo answering a question along the lines of receiving spam from your self some time back, and ran through all of his and other’s suggestions then as well.

    On a side note, email account wise, I’m in the rather unique situation of having and email address with an ISP that I no longer have a paid account with. Because when we parted ways they allowed me to keep my email address, and that was about eight or nine years ago. So I was quite interested in this article because technically, it’s a free email account. But with an ISP that doesn’t do free accounts. It sort of leaves me wondering just where I stand in all this. :\

    Cheers Leo. Great articles as usual.

    Reply
  12. I had a hearty laugh using your pickle example. “Since I know that some people don’t read for comprehension, I have to stress that I am making this up.” If you are not reading for comprehension, you’re not reading–you’re daydreaming.

    Reply
  13. I had my main yahoo account deactivated recently. I posted some apparently unwanted political opinions about South Africa. I think.

    Or, I did some posts with my avatar as a famous comedian (copyrighted?)–and the posts were, although intelligent, obnoxious.
    In any case, they deactivated my account without warning.

    Now, I didn’t know they had done it. I just knew I couldn’t get into the account, so I freaked thinking I was hacked.
    I quickly redirected all of my external information to another email account and later called Yahoo and talked to someone.
    TOS violation.
    The long and the short of it is, Yahoo basically lost a long-time customer in me. I had spent money through them buying different PPV stuff and what not. I also primarily used Yahoo for everything. I learned a hard lesson here.
    My email (used for many, many years# is linked #as all of ours are# to our profiles to comment on news articles and all of that. I guess the only choice they have to to deactivate you entirely instead of just prevent you from posting on articles or something.

    In any case, in the grand scheme of things, this is a very hard lesson. Now I will only use email I sponsor though another party #at my own expense#. I am not upset that the account is closed and all of the email lost, but this is a hard, hard lesson for all of us.
    When people talk about cloud computing, and doing all of your computer and file-based work online, where it’s saved online, and all of that, then just remember, if they boot you #for any reason, really, like posting unpopular opinions), you can basically lose everything, instantly.

    I think the real lesson here is to BACK UP. Don’t keep information in only one place, especially if that one place is a) in the cloud and b) under someone else’s ultimate control. A backup would save immeasurable grief.

    Leo
    12-Jun-2010
    Reply
  14. You’re missing the point: “THIRTEEN YEARS” is the key. No one is going to have an account for 13 years and suddenly become a “pickle” spammer. A long time client deserves different treatment than one of the thousands of accounts recently opened for the sole purpose of spamming. Besides replying something like “Your account mailed hundreds of identical messages the day it was closed” does not give away any “rules” and at least tells one that the account was probably hijacked. The deduction stands: “Expect nothing from Yahoo.”

    Reply
  15. I just had the same thing happen to me out of the blue – my hotmail account has been closed for a TOS violation out of the blue. I have not done anything different that I haven’t done many times before – trading pics with friends etc….they won’t tell you what you did; they won’t give you an escalation path; that’s it – you are done!! Some moron some place on the planet decided you no longer deserved a hotmail account and poof – all your contacts, etc…are gone.

    Reply

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