The death and life of postmaster@anywhere

November 29, 2020

A decade ago I wrote The quiet death of postmaster@anywhere, where I proclaimed that the postmaster@ address was dead, killed by steadily increasing spam volume (and decreasing actual use). I was recently reminded of that entry and, a decade later, I have to sort of take back what I wrote. It's true that postmaster addresses are increasingly dead, but when they are it's not for the reasons that I thought back then.

Perhaps ten years ago our postmaster account got a bunch of spam and bounces (I can no longer remember, but what I wrote in my old entry suggests that it may have at the time). These days it doesn't; we get basically no bounces that I can see, and very little spam (and almost all of the spam is recognized and rejected immediately). It's possible that this experience is far from universal, but I can think of some reasons why it might be. And in more anecdotal data, my spam-trap SMTP server has seen only one email to its postmaster address from 2017 onward.

(One potential reason for less spam to postmaster@ addresses is an increased difficulty in sending spam and along with it, an increased professionalization of spam sending. Spamming postmaster addresses is not very productive, so if spamming resources are limited and cost spammers things I'd expect to see less of it.)

But that doesn't mean that sending email to postmaster@ addresses will do you any good these days, or even work. What I've observed from sending the occasional spam complaint is that more and more places seem to be no longer accepting email to postmaster@ and sometimes even abuse@ addresses. I doubt this is driven by spam volume; instead I rather think it's a deliberate policy choice by places, especially by large email providers. Even when email to postmaster@ 'works' for large places, it's probably not reaching the technical people who deal with the mail system, or even necessarily the abuse handling people. It's probably much more likely to drop into some sort of general support system, with the attendant low odds of getting prompt or effective attention.

Of course in one sense this is nothing new. It's been years since sending email to any well known or public address got you useful results with large places (for either spam complaints or technical problem reports). The only real difference these days is you might get an actual SMTP rejection that says your email to postmaster@ or abuse@ is not accepted, instead of your email just quietly disappearing.

But for many smaller and more modest places, I suspect that postmaster@ is still alive. It certainly is here, and even for the overall university email system.

Written on 29 November 2020.
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Last modified: Sun Nov 29 00:28:01 2020
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