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Have you ever sent someone outside your company an email message expecting a reply but never received one? You follow up with the person and inquire about the message only to hear that it was never received. What happened? Where did it go?

This scenario is becoming more commonplace as our reliance on email increases and the volume of email grows. Messages are being blocked, bounced and buried at increasing rates but there are steps you can take to make sure your message gets through.

There are many reasons why messages fail to reach the intended recipients. Messages don't travel directly from your email server to the recipient's. They are relayed from one Internet server to another. These servers will attempt to keep messages moving toward their final destinations but technical problems sometimes cause messages to get lost along the way.

Some email systems will not alert you when the email address you specify is incorrect. For example, you want to send a message to but type by mistake. The email server may simply trash your message without informing you. This is done so that spammers will not be able to determine which addresses are legitimate.

Once a message successfully reaches its destination, it must pass through virus and spam filters. This is where many lost messages get trapped.

In the escalating war against spam, major Internet service providers like Verizon, AOL and MSN routinely block millions of email messages every day. Inevitably, some valid messages get trapped by spam filters. This also happens at any company that employs spam blocking filters on its email servers, which is almost all of them.

When a spam message gets through a spam filter, it is called a false negative. In other words, the spam filter rated the message as authentic and legitimate but it's not. When a legitimate message is blocked by a spam filter, we have a false positive. That is, the message is identified as spam but it is not.

Most spam filters employ a message scoring system. The filters look for certain words, phrases and other characteristics that suggest a message is spam. Each time the filter spots a spam-like characteristic, points are awarded. The more points a message gets, the greater the likelihood that it is spam.

One of the things that makes this complex is that there is no universal definition of spam. Each of us may receive the identical message and some of us will view it as spam while others see it as a legitimate offer. Hence, we arrive at a scoring system rather than an absolute good/bad result.

System administrators decide what minimum score will be used to differentiate spam from non-spam. Some administrators are more lenient than others. Again, there are no concrete guidelines. A company called Pivotal Veracity conducted a study involving 100 companies to find out what percentage of their legitimate email was being identified as spam. The messages used in the study were sent to people who had subscribed to email distribution lists.

Fifty-four percent of the companies were impacted to some degree by false positives meaning their legitimate emails were being blocked. Some legitimate messages were blocked up to 20 percent of the time.

This should be of particular concern to account executives sending out legitimate sales information to interested prospects. There is a reasonable chance that some of those messages are being trapped without their knowledge. If the prospect does not receive the requested information, the sale could be lost.

Because there is such a high volume of spam (estimated at 70-80 percent of all email), you will rarely receive an email message informing you that the filter scored your message as spam. Doing so would dramatically increase the amount of email on the Internet.

Here are some steps you can take to improve the chances of your legitimate messages getting through.

Lastly, there are several services available that offer the equivalent of the post office's "certified mail". These services enable you to track a message and receive a report of the date and time that the message is opened. Three that you might consider are: ReadNotify, ReturnReceipt and RPost.

I wouldn't recommend using these services for all your email but for the occasional message that is of utmost importance, they are a good option. You'll have proof that the message was sent and a record of when it was opened (or not).

Vin D'Amico is Founder and President of DAMICON, your ADJUNCT CIO™. He is an expert in IT Business Continuity Planning, Network Security Policies, and Freelance Writing focused on white papers, case studies, and handbooks. DAMICON services firms worldwide.

This article appeared in Vin's monthly Virtual Business column for the IndUS Business Journal in May 2006.

To learn more about how DAMICON can help your business, please take a look at our service programs.

Virtual Business

Virtual Business

This column appears monthly in the IndUS Business Journal.