What is The CAN-SPAM Act?

Share Article

Have you ever wondered why you still get spam emails even after unsubscribing countless times? Believe it or not, there are actual laws that govern commercial email practices to curb spam; one such law is the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, which established the first national standards for commercial emails in the United States.

With the rapid growth of the internet during the late 90s and email emerging as a popular communication channel, unwanted marketing emails began flooding inboxes everywhere. This article will examine the key provisions of the CAN-SPAM Act and what you need to know about your rights as an email user – so you can finally gain control over the spam in your inbox.

Business woman and lawyers discussing contract papers with brass scale on wooden desk in office

What Does The CAN-SPAM Act Do?

The CAN-SPAM Act is a law passed by Congress in 2003 that establishes guidelines for sending commercial emails. As we’re sure we’ve all experienced, spam was starting to become a major problem in inboxes everywhere by the early 2000s. People and businesses were getting inundated with unwanted promotional emails daily.

State governments had tried regulating spam on their own through laws restricting unsolicited commercial email. But, spammers were able to circumvent these laws due to the borderless nature of the internet. So, it became clear that national legislation was needed to have any real impact.

Enter the CAN-SPAM Act, which is the “Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act.” The goal of the law was to curb the worst spamming practices while still allowing for legal commercial email communications. It puts certain requirements on companies to make their emails more transparent and give people better control over the messages they receive.

Some key things the CAN-SPAM Act does include:

  • Requiring a functional unsubscribe mechanism.
  • Regulating deceptive subject lines.
  • Restricting fake header info that aims to hide the true sender.

It also prohibits the transmission of spam with fraudulent headers and imposes penalties for spammers convicted of deceptive practices.

The law puts enforcement power in the hands of the FTC. While it hasn’t solved the problem of spam entirely, advocates say it has helped curb some of the most heinous spamming behavior. Critics argue it didn’t go far enough and made certain spamming activities legal. But overall, it was an important first step in establishing a national framework for regulating commercial email.

Enforcement of The CAN-SPAM Act

When the CAN-SPAM Act became law in 2003, it represented the United States’ first real attempt to curb the growing spam problem through legislation. However, the law was only as good as its enforcement. The Act designated the FTC as the primary agency responsible for enforcing CAN-SPAM through investigations and filing lawsuits against violators. 

This was a monumental task as billions of illegal spam messages were sent daily across the internet. While spam persists today, CAN-SPAM enforcement has matured into a force that holds many spammers accountable under the laws. 

Core Provisions of the CAN-SPAM Act

At its core, the Act aims to stop deceptive practices in email marketing while protecting legitimate businesses that want to use email as part of their advertising. Some of the big things it does include: 

Accurate Email Headers 

One of the most important provisions outlined in the CAN-SPAM Act is the requirement for accurate email headers. Headers include elements like the “From,” “To,” and “Reply-To” fields that indicate who sent a message and its origin point. However, some less reputable marketers manipulated these headers to disguise the origins of their spam emails. By disguising who sent an email, they made it harder for recipients to identify and report spammers.

The CAN-SPAM Act recognized this as a serious issue, as deceptive header information undermined the entire spam reporting ecosystem. With unclear headers, internet service providers and email clients couldn’t effectively filter out spam or notify users about suspicious senders. By requiring transparency in email headers, CAN-SPAM aimed to restore integrity to the email system. So, marketers now need to ensure all commercial emails need to have accurate “From,” “To,” and return address information.

Clear Identification of Advertisements 

Too many marketers at the time were being sneaky with their subject lines or hiding the fact that an email was actually an ad. The law required messages to clearly and accurately indicate their purpose immediately.

Specifically, if an email is an advertisement, the subject line must convey that clearly. No more vague headers to trick people into opening something promotional. And the actual content has to disclose the message properly is an ad. 

It makes sense – if a company wants people to see what they’re offering, they need to be straight with them from the get-go. The identification rules aim to foster better transparency, so you have the context you need to choose what’s worth clicking or not. 

Physical Address Disclosure 

This is an important part of the CAN-SPAM Act that helps create transparency for email recipients. Including your physical mailing address allows people to know exactly who is contacting them and where that business operates from.

Now, the law understands that not every business has a fancy office space or storefront. So they made it flexible – you can include things like a PO Box or private mailbox number as long as it’s registered with the postal service.

Basically, anything that lets the recipient verify your location if they want to respond or find out more about your company. As long as you properly disclose where you’re located according to these guidelines, you’ll be following that aspect of the spam law.

Opt-Out Instructions 

If someone signs up for your newsletter but changes their mind, they need a simple way to remove themselves from your mailing list.

That’s where opt-out instructions come in. The law requires all commercial emails to include a clear way for recipients to opt themselves out of future mailings. The opt-out has to be easy to notice – usually placed right at the bottom of the message. So, all a person has to do is click the link or send a reply email saying “unsubscribe,” you have to process their request within ten business days.

Some key things – the opt-out has to be labeled clearly, like “Unsubscribe,” and it can’t require people to take any extra steps, like providing personal information. You also have to honor their request for at least 30 days after the initial email in case they accidentally opt back in. 

No Misleading Subject Lines 

As the sender, you must be upfront about what people will find in your message, or they could get annoyed or confused. The subject needs to represent what the email is about accurately.

For example, if your email is trying to sell exercise equipment, it wouldn’t be okay to use a subject like “You Won an iPad!” That’s misleading because no iPad is being given away. People want to know immediately if an email is trying to sell them something or just give them info. Misleading subjects are a sneaky way to trick people into opening emails they wouldn’t otherwise be interested in.

Under CAN-SPAM, subject lines have to be clear, direct, and match the actual content of the message. No wanting to make it seem like the email is about one thing when you’re advertising something entirely different. 

No Deceptive Sender Identity 

This part of the Act prohibits spammers from falsifying header information in their emails to mask who sent it. Spammers are not allowed to misrepresent the names or email addresses of the message’s origin or the “From” line.

The goal here is to help ensure transparency, so email users always know who really sent them a message, whether it’s a company they do business with or just an unknown sender. Banning this kind of sender deception gives recipients more power to decide which emails are legitimate versus potential spam.

At the same time, it also holds spammers accountable for their actions. They can face penalties under the CAN-SPAM Act if they are found to be using fake sender identities or impersonating others.

Law gavel with dollars and handcuffs on wooden table background

What Are The CAN-SPAM Act’s Penalties?

The CAN-SPAM Act puts some serious penalties in place for businesses that don’t follow the rules regarding commercial email marketing. Each individual email that breaks the law could result in fines of up to $50,000.

When you consider how many emails companies sometimes send out, violations can add up and get expensive quickly. Some key types of penalties and violations to be aware of:

  • Fines Per Email: As mentioned earlier, every email that doesn’t comply with things like labeling ads properly, including opt-out info, or having accurate sender info can result in fines of up to $50,000 each.


  • Multiple Parties Responsible: The company promoting their product in the email and the company actually sending it out could both face penalties if issues arise.


  • Deceptive Claims Fines: If your marketing emails contain misleading or false claims about your products/services, you may face additional penalties under different deceptive advertising laws on top of CAN-SPAM.


  • Aggravated Violations: Some especially problematic practices like using bots to generate email addresses, sending spam through hacked computers, or pretending to be someone else when registering email accounts can be considered “aggravated” violations that increase fines.


  • Criminal Penalties: More serious illegal activities like accessing someone else’s computer without permission to send spam can result in jail time for individuals and not just fines for companies.

How To Report CAN-SPAM Violations

Receiving spam emails can be annoying and frustrating. While spam filters help catch a lot of unsolicited commercial emails, spam sometimes slips through the cracks. If you happen to get a spam email that violates the rules under the CAN-SPAM Act, you can do a few things to report it.

You can report spam to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). They are the main government agency that enforces the CAN-SPAM Act. To file a complaint with them, visit FTC.gov/spam and click the large “Report Spam” button. This will take you to an online form where you can file your report.

On the form, you’ll need to provide things like your own contact details, the exact spam email subject line, the date you received it, and the sender’s email address. Be as descriptive as possible in explaining which aspects of the email appear to violate the CAN-SPAM rules, like whether it’s deceiving in its subject line or doesn’t include opt-out instructions.

Sometimes, spam emails are sent from free email services. In those cases, it can also be helpful to forward the spam to the email service provider whose servers were used to send it. This helps them identify spam accounts on their system that need to be shut down. Just ensure you follow their instructions carefully regarding how to report spam emails sent through their service.

Following up on reports helps authorities build cases against major spam operations. So if you receive additional spam from the same sender, or their emails become more frequent or misleading after your initial report, report those follow-up messages as well. This provides data that could lead to stronger enforcement actions against repeat offenders.

What Are The Act’s Consumer Opt-out Requirements

One of the main rules imposed by the CAN-SPAM Act involves how consumers can opt out of receiving commercial emails. Specifically, businesses need to honor consumer opt-out requests quickly and follow some guidelines for handling opt-outs.

When someone receives a promotional email, it must include a clear and simple way for the recipient to opt out of receiving future messages, whether a link they can click or a reply email address. Then, if a consumer exercises this opt-out option, the sender has ten business days to stop sending emails to that address.

It’s crucial marketers meet this ten-day deadline. Missing it could mean facing penalties from regulators like the FTC. Consumers rightfully expect to stop receiving emails once they click that opt-out link.

Any consumer email addresses that opted out can only be used for future communications related to complying with CAN-SPAM requirements. In other words, their info can’t be sold or transferred to other companies. 


While spam emails continue to be annoying, the CAN-SPAM Act established important guidelines for marketing emails by regulating misleading and annoying messages while allowing businesses to advertise. Going over the basics of CAN-SPAM provided helpful context, but the regulators at the FTC are really the best source for official and up-to-date legal requirements.

Overall, discussing some of the Act helped, but as with anything law-related, it’s good to check directly with the regulators if you need official compliance guidance.

You might also like