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How To Deal When Unsubscribe Doesn’t Work

Time to take a different approach.

Stop!
(Image: canva.com)
When a legitimate email sender doesn't respond to an "unsubscribe" request, they're no longer legitimate. Here's what to do.
If you use … and then try to unsubscribe they will not let you out. They keep sending e-mails almost every day. All I can do is to delete them but what really stinks is that they do not honor that “unsubscribe”!

It’s unfortunate, but there are definitely some “overly aggressive”, to put it mildly, companies out there.

I’m not really talking about spam. We all get that, and of course, you should never try to unsubscribe from it.

This is about companies — technically legitimate companies — that start abusing the privilege of sending you email, and won’t stop when you ask politely.

It’s time to get less polite.

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TL;DR:

When unsubscribe doesn't work

Make sure the email was sent after you unsubscribed. Depending on the email program or interface you use, your options to prevent messages from an unwanted sender include marking them as spam repeatedly, using an explicit “block sender” feature, or creating a filter or a rule to automatically delete their messages. If none of those options work for you, deleting each message as it arrives is quick and reliable.

Check the date

Before you get upset, check the date of the email you’re looking at after you unsubscribed.

If it was sent before you unsubscribed, the sender’s done nothing wrong — not yet anyway. They sent that message to you before you asked them to stop.

Apparently, it’s not uncommon to work through a long list of email in “most recent first” order, unsubscribe from a mailing, and then continue to encounter older messages. I’ve heard of people getting upset because they think the messages had been sent after unsubscribing, even though they had not been. Check the date.

When you do unsubscribe, give them at least a little time to take action. I’ll generally give them a day.

But don’t expect them to travel back in time. That technology doesn’t exist yet, at least not that I’m aware of.

Mark ’em as spam

This is my go-to response. If someone is sending you email, especially if it’s a lot, and you follow the proper procedure to ask them to stop — meaning you’ve unsubscribed — continuing to send you messages makes them a spammer. It’s the very definition of spam: unsolicited commercial email. Once you’ve said “stop”, it’s “unsolicited” in my book.

In theory, if you mark something as spam often enough, the spam filter should get the message and begin routing those messages to your spam or junk folder automatically.

The problem, of course, is marking as spam doesn’t always work, and it doesn’t always work quickly. It depends on the email system and spam filter you’re using. Some systems seem to react well and don’t take much encouragement, while others seem to completely ignore the suggestion.1

Some systems act on your personal opinion and realize that you think it’s spam. Others use the so-called “wisdom of the crowd” and won’t start marking it as spam until a large number of other people have marked it as spam as well.

So if it works, great. It’s my preferred solution.

If it doesn’t, we need to investigate alternatives.

Block senders

This isn’t available in all mail programs and isn’t something I recommend for run-of-the-mill spam. However, if you’re getting spam from a consistent source — the same “From:” address on each message — blocking them is an option.

For example, when you’re viewing an email in Gmail, click the vertical ellipsis, and one of the options will be to “Block” the sender.

Block sender in Gmail.
Block sender in Gmail. (Screenshot: askleo.com)

Now when you look at Gmail settings, in “Filters and Blocked Addresses” you’ll see a list of the email addresses that you’ve blocked.

Gmail's blocked email list.
Gmail’s blocked email list. (Screenshot: askleo.com)

Many online email services, and some email programs, have a blocking feature. It’s usually in their Junk Mail or Spam settings.

Remember: this only blocks a single email address. Spammers routinely change the “from” on all their messages, which is why blocking normal spam doesn’t work. If you’re getting unwanted messages from the same source over and over, “block sender” is an option.

One rule to spam them

If blocking isn’t an option, or you want finer control over what happens, the next solution I recommend is to set up a rule or filter in your email program or interface to automatically act on the message when it arrives.

For example, in Gmail’s “Filters and Blocked Addresses” settings, you can Create a new filter and specify the email address on which you want it to operate.

Creating a filter in Gmail, step 1.
Creating a filter in Gmail, step 1. (Screenshot: askleo.com)

After specifying the search criteria — in this case, the email address we wish to block — we can specify what is to happen.

Creating a filter in Gmail, step 2.
Creating a filter in Gmail, step 2. (Screenshot: askleo.com)

Oddly enough, “Mark as spam” isn’t an option in Gmail filters, so the next best thing is to automatically delete it. Many other programs and interfaces also let you mark it as spam in their filters.

I mention filters and rules because, as you can see, you have much finer control over what gets filtered (perhaps you need to see some of the emails from that address, but not others), and what happens (perhaps bypassing your inbox is enough). If blocking the sender doesn’t do it for you, perhaps a more flexible filter will.

Ignore them

I’m often amazed at how much ire spam raises. If you’re facing an uncontrolled flood every day, that’s one thing. Hopefully, a good spam folder reduces it to a trickle.

But even with just a trickle — say a single spam message every day showing up in an inbox — I’ve people can get really, really upset. It seems like life’s too short to let the spammers get to you that quickly, but that’s just me.

Unfortunately, if none of the techniques above work, or they aren’t available to you, your options are few. Of course, you can get a new email address, but that’s a tremendous amount of work and complication just to stop one problematic subscription.

My more pragmatic alternative is simply this: the delete key. It’s fast, it’s effective, and it’s always there for you.

You deserve control

The bottom line is that whoever is sending you email and offering to unsubscribe you isn’t playing by the rules when they ignore your request. If that’s an issue for you, you need to take matters into your own hands and explore options like blocking, filters, or other techniques to get their messages out of sight.

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Footnotes & References

1: I’m looking at you, Outlook.com.

 

18 comments on “How To Deal When Unsubscribe Doesn’t Work”

  1. Hi Leo – thanks as always for a helpful article. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Mailwasher programme from Firetrust, but I’ve been using it for years and it really helps to identify (and then delete and/or bounce!) unwanted emails before they even hit your machine. The idea being, of course, that if it bounces, then the spam generator will think your email address is not used, and stop sending.

    Even if this doesn’t work, Mailwasher will flag all suspect emails (or those you’ve blacklisted) and it’s easy to quickly run down the list and make sure that the treatment of each mail is what you want. It even allows you to restore an email which has been deleted &/or bounced in the last few weeks, if you inadvertently delete one you really wanted. I routinely check mail for all 3 of my accounts through Mailwasher first, before doing send & receive.

    Reply
  2. It’s funny. Today I marked two emails from legitimate companies. One didn’t include an unsubscribe. It was a textbook company and they were ads I never signed up for. Somehow book companies think they have a God-given right to send spam to people with academic addresses. The other had an unsubscribe but I would have to have filled out a few fields to unsubscribe. Spamming them was easier. If unsubscribe requires any more than a confirmation mouse-click, they deserve to have their emails labeled as spam.

    Gmail seems to do a good job of learning to recognize spam after I’ve marked them. Footnote 1 is one of the reasons I don’t use my hotmail address for serious email.

    Reply
    • Similar to what you said about books, I get SPAM E-mails all the time about becoming a guest editor for an issue of a journal. All because I published a peer reviewed paper years ago with my personal E-mail address (since I had left my employer). And looking at what you get for being a guest editor, it ain’t much!

      Reply
  3. Thank you it’s awesome to learn that GMail now has a “block sender” option … that has worked wonders for me in other email programs where the sender did not honor the “unsubscribe”. Blocking seems to trigger some kind of rejection notice that’s more effective than the “unsubscribe” is. I also use the “filter” option, for senders that I want to receive certain kinds of communications from but not emails on other subjects. You can specify a subject or words and send those from that sender directly to the trash without being bothered by them. 🙂

    Reply
  4. Spam… a perennial problem since it was invented. I’ve rarely had this problem, and when I have, the spam button (in Gmail) has worked fine.

    But i wonder if this could cause problems if a company with which I have done business starts sending promotional material with no way to block it. If I use one of these sledgehammer approaches, it would also block account-related messages. Is there any advice on how to contact a company to advise them of the problem and possibly get it fixed?

    Reply
  5. This is probably a stupid question but anyway…
    You mentioned unsubscribe as a first choice. I am not arguing with that. I don’t want to unsubscribe. I get a lot out of your articles.
    Somewhere or someone once told me to forward their articles to a friend but to delete the “unsubscribe” link so they wouldn’t inadvertently unsubscribe you.

    How do you that? What is the proper procedure to break an “unsubscribe” link or any link for that matter? It’s easier said than done for me.

    Reply
    • When you have selected an email to forward, you should be able to edit the email before clicking on “send”. Highlight what you want to delete, such as an unsubscribe link, then hit delete on your keyboard. The highlighted part will be deleted. When you’re finished deleting parts of the email you do not want included, hit “send”.

      To see if it works properly, forward an email to yourself making sure to delete the unsubscribe link first.

      Reply
  6. I’m surprised Leo did not mention anything about the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. But then again, this article was aimed more at how to deal with repeated emails if unsubscribing does not work.

    Reply
  7. I get so much “SPAM” through Linkeded. Especially recruiters, but I am NOT looking for a job. When I tell them that, then they try to offer to hire staff for me, which I am also not looking. This one lady, I told her several times I’m not interested. She said “gotcha” each time. Finally I unfriended her. She friends me again asking for 5 minute to talk about her company can help hire for me. I have reported to Linkedin as SPAM and blocked her now, but it is frustrating.

    Reply
  8. I was getting frequent emails from a large, reputable company with whom i had done business twice. On both occassions they had let me down badly. I tried unsubscribing several times with no luck, until I finally decided to write to their head office. I threatened to report them to both their ISP and to Watchdog (a consumer TV show here in the UK) if they didn’t remove me from their mailing list by the end of the next business day. It worked…

    Reply
  9. From way back, I found that clicking the “Unsubscribe” link usually works to the site I do not want, BUT, within a few days, I start getting a ba-zillon spam mails from everywhere else, even if I have never been to the sites….
    Blocking or marking as spam works for a while, then it starts again, with different sites. I usually advise clients do not use unsubscribe link, as I would see the same issue over and over…
    Seems once unsubscribed to a site, your good address is sent to the “National Database of Spam”. (NDS)
    Just my feelings on the spam industry…….

    Reply
  10. One extreme way to get a ‘legitimate’ company’s attention is to post on Twitter including their handle and simply ask: “Why won’t [@company] honor my request to stop sending me unwanted email.” This has worked several times for me.

    Reply
  11. Years ago, when I started using Thunderbird for my email, I set up a filter to mark all emails as spam, if the sender is not in my address book. It works really nicely to keep by inbox clean with only emails I’m interested in.

    Reply
  12. I’ve found that with most email providers and email programs, when you mark an email as spam, the spam filter blocks the sender and all the email from them will go to the spam folder. That may be why Gmail doesn’t give you the option to send it to spam. Also, when I want to block a specific sender, I’m just as happy to have it go directly to Trash. That way, I don’t have to review it in my spam folder for false positives.

    Reply

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