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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains

The Holmes Identity, or How Not to Unsubscribe

I was going to leave this alone, or maybe bury it in the Letters to the Editor section, but it's just too good.

A few days ago I sent out my opt-in-only garden railroading e-mail newsletter to a growing list of folks who want to learn more about and support the garden railroading hobby. That newsletter always includes the following language, close to the top:

    Fine Print: If you are receiving our e-mail updates and you no longer wish to subscribe, please use the following link to e-mail me with a "Please Unsubscribe" message (worded any way you wish), and we will graciously remove you from our list.

As you can probably guess, the fact that our newsletters only go out to people who specifically requested them means that I get relatively few unsubscribe requests. However, occasionally I get a "dandy." This blog-like article is about ways folks misunderstand the whole concept of "unsubscribing," that is, letting me know they don't want to get the newsletters any more.

Normal Unsubscribe Requests

I get about one unsubscribe request a month, far fewer than I get new signups. Usually the request is from someone who was considering the hobby but has decided this is a bad time for them to take it on. Once or twice in the past five years the request has come from someone who disagreed violently with something in one of my articles - a "my way or the highway" type who thinks his way is the only "right way" to build or operate a garden railroad and that I should only recommend methods and choices he approves. And, I confess, that some folks have other reasons for unsubscribing that I may find less, er, flattering. But at any rate, all anyone has to do is let me know they don't want to get the newsletter anymore, and I take them off the list, no questions asked. If you have no interest in the service that our newsletters provide, we certainly have no reason to keep sending them to you. It's not like we have a "quota" or something.

The relatively small number of people who have unsubscribed will tell you that I immediately take them off the list and send them a gracious e-mail telling them to let me know if we can help them in the future. I also move their name to ANOTHER list, so I can be sure not to sign them up again without asking them if they're "really sure" - some folks have "accidentally" signed up two or three times (don't ask me how you can fill out the whole form by "accident"), and each time been surprised when they started getting newsletters.

I also get unsubscribe/resubscribe requests from folks who are changing their e-mail address and want to make sure they keep getting our newsletters.

Abnormal Unsubscribe Requests

Then again, there are always folks who can't figure out how to use the "unsubscribe" link in our newsletters, or how to hit "reply" and just ask me to stop sending them anything. And why ask nicely, or follow directions, when it's so much less trouble to exercise some "nuclear option" and make other people clean up your messes?

Blame Identify Theft - Once I got an angry e-mail from a university student here on a student visa who said that someone had "stolen his identity" and signed him up for the list without his permission. I unsubscribed him, of course, but I copied him on the original request so he would know I wasn't just "spamming" him at random. He wrote back even angrier, something like "What part of 'identity theft' don't you understand?!" Fine. Maybe there really was someone at his university stealing people's e-mail log-ins JUST to sign them up for obscure, opt-in-only newsletters about things the average college student knows or cares almost nothing about.

Make a False Report to Your ISP - In the past five years, I have had not one, but THREE subscribers who decided that the easy way to stop getting the newsletters that someone in their household had signed up for was to contact their ISP and request that we be put on a spammers list and blocked from all of that ISP's customers. We didn't know about it, of course, until all of our other readers on the same ISP stopped getting our newsletters. The first two times, I contacted the ISP's "spam police," sent them a copy of the newsletter with the unsubscribe notice near the top, and both times they acknowledged that we are NOT spammers, by any definition. The most recent time, no one at the ISP would get back to me, so I contacted other subscribers of the same ISP and asked them to work it from their end. They did.

Of course, contacting the ISP and making a false report about our newsletters was far more work than simply unsubscribing would have been. But then, the unsubscribers wouldn't have had the emotional satisfaction of making several other people clean up the mess they had caused.

Come Out Fighting - But this week's entry "takes the cake." A fellow who apparently just signed up for a g-mail account, managed to get the g-mail address of a former subscriber. When he got the garden railroading newsletter, he went ballistic. I wrote to him to explain that the former owner of the e-mail address HAD signed up, and that I had no intention of spamming ANYBODY.

Before you read the following exchange, you should know that I never put anyone's e-mail address on the site, not even mine. I learned long ago that posting a real e-mail address like on any internet page attracts the attention of "web-crawlers," programs that continuously scan the internet for e-mail addresses that professional spammers, phishers, and other vermin can use to deluge unsuspecting folks with unwanted ads or requests for personal information. And, unlike legitimate mail lists, the spammers and phishers DON'T unsubscribe you when you ask them to; instead, they make a note that the address really works and sell it to other spammers. So, I hope you understand that I am only using the e-mail address for educational purposes, and if the person currently using the e-mail address suddenly receives a massive deluge of objectionable e-mails from real spammers and phishers, that is purely an unintended collateral effect of this educational effort.

Now, here's's first response to unexpectedly getting a newsletter at an e-mail address ( he had just signed up for.


    hi paul

    im going to forward your email to spamhaus, spamcop and the ftc

    thanks for spamming me and costing me money

    i hope they list you and eventually your emails are all blocked

Here's my e-mail back to him, which I hope was a bit more gracious:

    On Fri, Mar 5, 2010 at 4:57 PM, Paul wrote:

    [First name withheld],

    Many months ago a signed up for my garden railroading newsletter.

    His name was XXXX Holmes. He gave me his street address. He told me what kind of trains he had and what kind of RR he was building. He has since received several of my newsletters without complaining about one thing.

    When I got your note, I was appalled that someone who had gone out of his way to sign up for this newsletter would be so outraged that he actually got one more after already receiving several.

    Now I'm considering the possibility that XXXX gave up his g-mail account, freeing up, and you signed up using the same name, not realizing that someone else had owned this name before you.

    Either way, I don't spam anybody - my newsletter is opt-in only. And if you wold like to NOT get it, just tell me so.

    Or follow the instructions in the newsletter itself and unsubscribe.

    Sorry for any misunderstanding. Have a great day,

    Paul Race

Not to admit that he may have been mistaken in blasting me the first time, wrote back:


    hey no problem...since you refuse to take me going to send it off to the ftc and spamcop tired of this [expletive deleted]

    it wont do much to you...but you will be listed..other companies have been fined as much as 2 million dollars by the ftc for spam

    best wishes

My final note to the current user of the e-mail address is listed below (I'm afraid it's not quite as gracious as my previous reply):

    Trust me, you're off my list. It's opt-in only, and since you have made it clear that you are not the who signed up in the first place, you are no longer authorized to receive our newsletters.

    Feel free to forward this entire exchange to as many people as you wish.

I figured that would end the conversation, since what Mr. Holmes claimed he wanted was to stop getting e-mails from me. But apparently he felt he needed more. In his most recent e-mail to me, he claimed that he was one of the first g-mail users ever and that no one else could possibly ever have owned the e-mail address

The truth is that there IS a (slim) possibility that when the OTHER Mr. Holmes signed up for our newsletter, he typed his e-mail address in wrong TWICE. So I would be willing to concede that maybe the e-mailing me now really had gotten six or seven unwanted e-mail newsletters that he hadn't signed up for.

Unfortunately, that still doesn't explain why ignored our simple, prominent instructions to unsubscribe. Nor does it explain why his first contact with me was so belligerant. Nor does it explain the anatomically impossible things his last e-mail to me demanded that I do or many strange threats he made (I won't include the demands or the threats because this is a family web site). So, while has been removed from our mailing lists (the objective he ostensibly set out to achieve), my pity for the grevious hardships I have supposedly put him through by sending him one or more newsletters about garden trains has worn a bit thin.


The one time I really did mess up an unsubscribe request, I apologized heartily for it to the respondent. But hopefully you can see that this "unsubscribe request' was in a class by itself.

I actually sympathize with's concerns about spam - it is a real problem that forced me to change my own personal e-mail address many years ago. But uninformed tirades against people who aren't really spamming you at all isn't the way to solve the problem.

Hopefully none of the dozen or so web crawlers which hit my site every day looking for e-mail addresses to spam will pick up the e-mail address and start inundating him with REAL spam. Isn't it obvious that the person now using the e-mail address has already suffered enough, just by being exposed to unwanted pictures and descriptions of garden trains?

Looking forward to your suggestions, additions, criticisms, and anything else to let me know you're paying attention, I remain,

Paul Race

Click to see some ways you can help us grow the hobby.P.S. Enjoy your trains. Especially enjoy any time you have with your family in the coming weeks.

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