CAN-SPAM Compliance 101: Unboxed

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As a business that utilizes email communication, it is crucial to understand the CAN-SPAM Act—an essential law that governs commercial email messaging. This compliance guide will shed light on the history, provisions, impact, enforcement, and practical tips for businesses to comply with the CAN-SPAM Act.

Unveiling the key aspects of the CAN-SPAM Act and its significance for email marketers or anyone who uses email to communicate with prospective customers, this comprehensive guide offers valuable insights into compliance requirements and strategies to ensure adherence to this important legislation.


History 101

The CAN-SPAM Act, enacted in 2003, was introduced to combat the rising issue of unsolicited commercial email, commonly known as spam. Its primary objective was to establish guidelines and regulations to govern commercial email messages, protect recipients from deceptive and fraudulent practices, and impose penalties on violators.

What is it? 

The CAN-SPAM Act applies to all commercial messages, encompassing any electronic mail message primarily aimed at commercial advertisement or promotion of a product or service. This includes emails promoting content on commercial websites, without exceptions for business-to-business emails.

Can-Spam Compliance : In a Nutshell

  • Accurate Header Information: The “From,” “To,” “Reply-To,” and routing information must be truthful, accurately identifying the sender.

  • Honest Subject Lines: Subject lines should reflect the content of the message and avoid deception.

  • Identification of Ads: Email marketers must clearly and conspicuously disclose that their message is an advertisement.

  • Inclusion of Physical Address: Each email must contain a valid physical postal address of the sender, allowing recipients to locate and contact the business.

  • Opt-Out Mechanism: Businesses must provide a clear and conspicuous method for recipients to opt out of future email communications. The opt-out notice should be easily recognizable, readable, and understandable. It is important to avoid obstacles or fees for opting out, ensuring prompt fulfilment of opt-out requests.

  • Opt-Out Compliance: Email marketers are required to honor opt-out requests promptly, processing them for at least 30 days after sending the initial message. Sale or transfer of email addresses after opting out is prohibited.

  • Accountability for Third-Party Actions: Businesses cannot contract away their legal responsibility for compliance with the CAN-SPAM Act. Both the company whose product is promoted and the one sending the message can be held accountable.

Whose most affected? 

The CAN-SPAM Act affects businesses across various industries that utilize email for commercial purposes. Any organization engaging in email marketing or sending commercial messages, regardless of size or industry, must comply with the act’s provisions. This includes businesses involved in e-commerce, advertising agencies, financial services, retail, and more. Compliance is essential to maintain trust, protect consumers, and avoid substantial penalties. In a very recent case GDPR non-compliance cost Meta a large chunk of change.

How does this work today? 

The regulation of the CAN-SPAM Act falls under the responsibility of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is a government agency in the United States. The FTC has the authority to create and enforce rules related to commercial email messages.

The FTC’s regulations provide detailed guidelines on how to comply with the requirements of the CAN-SPAM Act. These regulations include specific instructions on issues such as the content of commercial emails, opt-out mechanisms, and sender identification. By following these regulations, businesses and individuals can ensure they are in compliance with the law.

CAN-SPAM Enforcement 

The enforcement of the CAN-SPAM Act involves several entities, including the FTC, state law enforcement agencies, and Internet service providers (ISPs). Here are the key aspects of enforcement:

Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

The FTC is the primary enforcer of the CAN-SPAM Act. It investigates complaints related to violations of the Act and takes legal action against violators. The FTC can impose civil penalties for non-compliance, which can amount to thousands of dollars per violation.

State Law Enforcement Agencies

State attorneys general also have the authority to enforce the CAN-SPAM Act. They can bring legal actions against spammers on behalf of their states’ residents and seek civil penalties.

Internet Service Providers (ISPs): ISPs play a crucial role in enforcing the CAN-SPAM Act by implementing filtering and anti-spam technologies. They work to identify and block spam emails, protecting their users from unwanted and potentially harmful messages.

Notable CAN-SPAM Violators

Here are two examples of notable CAN-SPAM violators

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) took enforcement actions against Phoenix Avatar and Global Web Promotions for violations of the CAN-SPAM Act. 

In the case of Phoenix Avatar, the FTC charged the company and its principals for sending illegal spam emails promoting bogus diet patches. The defendants were accused of earning nearly $100,000 per month from product sales based on false claims. They used spoofing techniques to hide their identities and did not provide an opt-out mechanism for recipients. 

The FTC alleged that their actions violated both the FTC Act and provisions of the CAN-SPAM Act. A Temporary Restraining Order was issued by the court, halting the spamming activities and freezing the defendants’ assets. Criminal charges were also filed against some individuals associated with Phoenix Avatar, including violations of the federal mail fraud laws and the CAN-SPAM Act.

In the case of Global Web Promotions Pty Ltd., an Australian company, the FTC filed legal charges for their significant involvement in spamming in the United States. The company advertised a diet patch and claimed that their human growth hormone products could maintain a user’s appearance and biological age for a long period. However, experts cited by the FTC disputed these claims, stating they were false. 

The products were shipped from within the United States. The FTC accused Global Web Promotions, along with individuals Michael John Anthony Van Essen and Lance Thomas Atkinson, of violating the FTC Act and the CAN-SPAM Act. The FTC requested a Temporary Restraining Order to stop further illegal spam and halt the illegal sales and shipment of products.

These cases involved the FTC presenting evidence of the defendants’ spoofing activities, where they forged headers to make it appear that emails came from innocent third parties. This practice caused difficulties for those unsuspecting victims, including companies like AOL and Microsoft Network. The FTC highlighted that spoofing is not only prohibited by the CAN-SPAM Act but also causes hardships for innocent businesses. The assistance of other agencies, such as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the New Zealand Commerce Commission, was acknowledged in the Global Web Promotions Pty Ltd. case.

These are just a couple of examples, and there have been numerous other cases where individuals and companies have faced legal consequences for violating the CAN-SPAM Act. 

Enforcement actions can vary in terms of penalties and remedies depending on the severity of the violations and other factors considered by the courts and regulatory agencies involved.

Making compliance easy

Compliance with the CAN-SPAM Act doesn’t have to be a daunting task for businesses. The FTC provides a short FAQ on their site that describes how you can easily comply here.  But since you’re reading this post, here’s some practical tips, that can help you can simplify the compliance process:

  1. Familiarize Yourself with the Act: Thoroughly understand the provisions and requirements of the CAN-SPAM Act to ensure compliance from the start. Review the guidelines provided by the FTC and seek legal advice if needed.
  1. Maintain Accurate Header Information: Double-check that the “From,” “To,” “Reply-To,” and routing information in your emails accurately identify your business and avoid any misleading or false information.
  1. Transparent Subject Lines: Ensure that subject lines accurately reflect the content of the email. Avoid using deceptive tactics or misleading statements that may misrepresent the purpose of the message.
  1. Clearly Identify Ads: Clearly disclose that your email is an advertisement. While the law offers flexibility in how you disclose this, make sure it is conspicuous and evident to recipients.
  1. Include a Physical Address: Every email you send must contain a valid physical postal address. This can be your current street address, a registered post office box, or a registered private mailbox.
  1. Opt-Out Mechanism: Provide a clear and conspicuous explanation of how recipients can opt out of receiving future emails from you. Craft the opt-out notice in a manner that an ordinary person can easily recognize, read, and understand. Include a return email address or an Internet-based method for recipients to communicate their choice.
  1. Promptly Honor Opt-Out Requests: Implement a mechanism that can process opt-out requests for at least 30 days after sending the initial email. Honor opt-out requests within 10 business days and ensure that no obstacles, fees, or unnecessary steps are required from the recipient.
  1. Monitor Third-Party Actions: If you hire another company to handle your email marketing, remember that you are still legally responsible for compliance. Regularly monitor their practices and ensure they adhere to CAN-SPAM requirements.


Compliance with the CAN-SPAM Act is essential for businesses engaged in commercial email marketing. By understanding the history, provisions, impact, enforcement, and practical tips outlined in this guide, you can navigate the requirements with confidence. 

Protect your business reputation, maintain customer trust, and avoid costly penalties by incorporating these compliance strategies into your email marketing practices. Stay informed, adapt to evolving regulations, and ensure your emails align with the CAN-SPAM Act’s guidelines.

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