Ten days to unsubscribe from your spam? You’ve gotta be kidding, AT&T


The promotional emails from AT&T were becoming more insistent. With subject lines like “Appearances can be deceiving, Christopher,” and “This is SO you!” and “Christopher, think you can resist?,” it was time to resist.

I needed to get off AT&T’s promotional list for new iPads, phone service and tablets, and I needed it to happen now.

AT&T’s answer? In due time, Christopher.

I’m a reluctant AT&T customer. I have an unlimited data plan dating back to the first iPhone that I just can’t seem to let go of. So I put up with the dead zones, the price hikes and the junk fees, because I can’t imagine it’s better with a competitor.

But I have a few expectations. First, that a company like AT&T won’t send me spam, either from the company or from one of its “trusted” partners. If I want ads, I’ll sign up for them, thanks very much. And second, that if I ask it to remove me, it will. No questions asked.

But this is what happened when I tried to unsubscribe from AT&T’s emails:

We have received your unsubscribe request and will send you a confirmation email. Your request may take up to 10 business days to be processed.

Going forward, you will continue to receive transactional emails, which are the emails related to your bill or any orders.

If you would like to receive promotional e-mails from us in the future, you can sign up here.

Huh? Ten days?

If this were a bricks-and-mortar business selling me widgets, I might understand. Maybe they need to update their manual Rolodex. But AT&T, a technology company with $146 billion in revenues last year, should do something like this pronto.

A few minutes later, I received the following message:

Promotional Subscription Update

Dear Valued Customer,

Email address elliottc@gmail.com has been placed on our “Do Not Email List” for Promotional messages. This action is a result of your online interactions or conversation with an AT&T representative.


Please note that this request may take up to ten business days to become fully effective and will not affect transactional or event based e-mails such as order confirmations or bill ready notifications.

If you would like to change your e-mail preferences in the future, please visit our email preferences page.

Your privacy is important to us. If you did not authorize these changes, contact an ATT Customer Service Center. Wireless Customers: 1-800-331-0500; Digital TV, Internet, or Home Phone customers: 1-800-288-2020.

Thank you,

AT&T

I sent my AT&T contact a polite message, asking why it would take more than a week to get off its list.

“Is this for a story you’re writing or are you just curious?,” she replied.

Both, actually.

Here’s the answer: Many unsolicited email campaigns are set up days in advance, so a company like AT&T may already have pulled the trigger on another series of emails (“Thought you were done, Christopher? Not so fast!”)

The CAN-SPAM Act requires you comply with an unsubscribe request within 10 business days, meaning a large company must remove your email address relatively fast, although not as fast as you want.

The AT&T rep confirmed:

Customers who choose to unsubscribe from our promotional emails are automatically removed from our list.

However, we prepare our email lists in advance so and there is a possibility a customer’s email address would appear on a pre-populated list prior to their unsubscription.

In almost every case, customers who opt out will not receive a promotional email beyond 5 days, but are removed within 10 days per the requirements of the CAN-SPAM law.

In the 21st century, giving a company 10 days to take you off its mailing list is more of a loophole than a grace period. A company like AT&T, which added me to its mailing list without permission (but legally, since I’m a customer), should act faster and should acknowledge that it will no longer bother me with unwanted advertising.

Should the 10-day removal period in the CAN-SPAM act be shortened?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Melissa Ballard Jones

    In the scheme of things I find this to be a minor irritation. There are so many other things to go on the warpath about why waste your time with it?

  • Regina Litman

    I get those “up to 10 business days” replies a lot, too. As a long-time computer programmer of big computers of a hardware type evolving from the 1960s, I had a different take on this. A large corporation such as AT&T and some of the ones from which I’ve unsubscribed likely still does a lot of their processing on these big computers, using programs written in languages such as COBOL. Much of this processing is done via a method known as batch processing. What this means is that every request of a type, such as unsubscribed, is sent to a batch of like requests for processing together at a future time. Depending on such factors as the importance of the data to the company, the number of such requests received in a certain time period, the system resources available to procss the batch, etc., a certain type of batch job may run on a regular schedule, such as hourly, daily, weekly, b-weekly, monthly, or annually, or upon request. Thus, my take on this was that the company runs this process every two weeks (10 business days). If I just missed the cut-off, it really would take 10 business days to remove me. But if I got my request in just a few minutes before the schedule computer run, the removal would be almost immediate.

    While AT&T’s explanation probably is the business reason in 2016, I suspect the government act’s time frame of 10 business days was based on the maximum time it may take before a company’s next batch cycle ran several years ago.

    I suspect that the conpany you’d really like to leave AT&T for is Verizon. But if you just want to be rid of AT&T and still want unlimited data, I suggest looking into Sprint. The only reason I have them is for the unlimited data. I have Verizon for the iPad I’m typing this on (using wifi right now) becaause no one has unlimited data for tablets. I do recognize Verizon as a superior conpany to Sprint.

  • Mel65

    I have an iPhone and Uverse and I don’t get any of those emails. I find gmail does a great job of filtering out Spam. And if one slips through, once I mark it as Spam, I get no more. Why haven’t you filtered them out…and why on earth are you still reading them?

  • pmcw

    While an instantaneous reaction to the request may seem logical, that’s not always the case. In addition to the good points made by Regina, there are also situations where companies out-source their email campaigns. Due to these factors, ten days seems like a reasonable solution. Mel also makes a good point that can be executed with gmail and email programs like Mozilla.

  • MarkKelling

    Yes, but … :-)

    They can ADD your email to their promotional processes within minutes. Happened when I moved my phone to AT&T, I started getting the offer emails almost immediately. So if this is really done through a batch process (and I believe that to be true for most processes at a large old company like AT&T), it is simply their choice to run the deletes at the latest possible point in time. Maybe they hope you will see one of those emails and choose to buy the offered product.

    We run mainframe COBOL batch where I work currently and at the large bank where I worked previously. Everything (at both companies) happens not more than 24 hours after the request is made, and there is an online process feeding the batch which makes most requests effective immediately. With today’s modern speed of commerce, it is not reasonable to expect anything slower.

  • MarkKelling

    There are many companies that seem to have no issues with making your email requests happen instantly. Then there are those like AT&T which seem to move at a glacial speed when you ask them to change anything that will be a positive improvement for the customer experience.

    While these emails are a minor annoyance, it would make me as a customer much happier with them overall if they would respond quicker. Of course just because they say it can take 10 business days for the change, a lot of times it is much quicker.

    What is most annoying is those companies that say they will remove you from the mailing lists but never do.

    A second anyone is those companies that don’t seem to filter their list of email addresses and send multiple copies of the same email because you might have checked the “send me emails” box on multiple forms. But when you unsubscribe, you lose all the copies.

  • AJPeabody

    Dear AT&T: Do you think someone who has already unsubscribed to your emails will buy something from one of them in the subsequent 10 business days? You are wasting electrons.

  • Peter Varhol

    I have been a longtime subscriber to US Cellular. While they aren’t available everywhere, 20 years ago they were the only native carrier in New Hampshire. Regarding spam, I get 2-3 a month from them, which is manageable.

  • Skeptic

    Use technology to fight technology: set up an auto-forward of such unwanted emails to corporate exec email addresses, with a cover note explaining the situation.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Curious: How quickly do people get dropped from Christopher’s newsletter list? (I think he’s still doing that. At least he used to.) Is it instant? Or if I unsubscribed today would there still be a chance of getting the newsletter being sent out tomorrow or a few days from now? The point is that not every company, including large ones, does instant updates to their data. It’s pretty common to see companies only do weekly updates or to pull lists early for sends and then not bounce them off the unsubscribes again.

  • jae1

    Those are very good points made regarding batch processing. What’s missing from the conversation is, why isn’t this an opt-in? Why is AT&T still assuming that it’s ok to send you junk unless you affirmatively say you don’t want it? More and more, I’m seeing companies move to the opt-in model, especially for sales and 3rd-party messages. Or is the problem just that you’ve had the account for so long that the opt-in/opt-out checkbox wasn’t available?

  • FQTVLR

    If you have VOIP phones sign up for NOMOROBO. It has eliminated most of my robocalls–one ring and they are gone.

  • James

    The origin of the fight against spam was that it was a recipient-pays method of advertising. When SPAM was first becoming a thing, it was a non-trivial cost for ISP’s to receive email. If you suddenly had a blast of 25,000 emails on your dialup line, it might take hours for them to be processed before you could get the email you wanted. Similarly, these ISP’s would need to have the disk space to hold the email for customers, and this was when disks were measured in MB, not TB.

    Further, the explosion of mailing lists meant that someone like me would receive thousands of these email messages per day. I wrote filters to manage them, and blocked notorious senders of spam. Now, it is a few per day, but if I remove the blocks on email from spammers, it would be hundreds or thousands per day.

    Reducing unsolicited commercial email, unregulated, i not a minor irritation.

  • Melissa Ballard Jones

    I was addressing emails from known senders which is what he was talking about. If it’s spam from an unknown sender I wouldn’t bother with unsubscribe. I just block it. I agree with you about spam.

  • Éamon deValera

    You’ve obviously never worked in IT. Much of these are outsourced to vendors to send these campaign emails (in fact I can’t think of such a promotion that is done in house by any large firm) and indeed the email addresses and metadata associated with the email adderss is sent to these vendors several days prior to the email blast.

    Ten days is not unreasonable, nor improper.

    There are much better deals with superior service in Central Florida than AT&T.

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