How Not to Handle Abuse

For a Web host, handling abuse is a messy matter. It is important to have a strategy ready to keep spammers at bay, qualify for safe harbor protection under the DMCA and generally keep your site from becoming a cesspool. However, having helped with abuse-related matters, I know well that it can descend into a rather childish game where people complain about petty things outside the scope of the TOS.

So how do you enforce your TOS without getting drawn into “he said/she said” conflicts and wasting your time settling petty squabbles? There are a lot of ways. Myspace, for all of the flak it takes, does a reasonable job. However, there are a lot of hosts that manage to screw it up in dramatic fashion, taking steps that, in their desire for “efficiency”, makes it almost impossible to file a legitimate notice of abuse, be it spam, copyright infringement or something more serious. So what are the worst steps for handling abuse? Here’s my short list.

5. Let the Moderators Handle It

The Big Idea: You’ve started a small site that has grown into a large community. Whether it is a forum, a social networking site or some other community-oriented site, you’ve watched it grow into something beautiful. The problem is that it has also grown outside the bounds of what you can effectively police yourself. So, in a bid to keep costs down, you recruit some of the more faithful members to be unpaid employees, moderating the different areas of the site. Great. Now, whenever someone comes to complain about an abuse issue, regardless of what it is, you direct them to find a moderator and let them handle it. This means you can kick back and focus on things such as advertising, server issues and other “big question” items.

The Problem: Moderators are great tools, but relying on them solely is foolish. First of all, moderators are not always reliable. As unpaid employees, they can come and go at their leisure. The bigger problem though is that, while Moderators are great front-line defenses when dealing with members, how does this help non-members who would have to register to even speak with one? Your posters don’t just abuse one another, they abuse others on the Web, especially when dealing with copyright matters. This is why many well-intended Webmasters feel the need to go over the head of forum admins and report them to their host.

A Better Solution: Encourage your members to use your moderators but make contact information for you or another direct employee available in the non-members area of the site. Also, make sure to register yourself, or someone else, as the DMCA agent for your site at the United States Copyright Office Web site.

Discourage members from using this frivolously, possibly providing punishments for anyone who does, but keep it there for people outside your site that might need it.

4. Use an Email Form

The Big Idea: Giving out your email address is dangerous. It can attract email spammers or become a magnet for angry users. To deal with this, many hosts, especially mid-sized ones, have begun using email forms and, specifically, ones tailored for abuse. One the surface it seems pretty cool. You can use a drop down to indicate what kind of abuse the person is reporting (being sure to leave a place for “other”), clearly explain the types of problems you won’t help and, in some cases, even help people file a proper DMCA complaint so you don’t have to throw back the notice and waste time on the back and forth. What can go wrong?

The Problem: Well, the first part of the problem is that email forms are often abused by spammers too. This means that many use CAPTCHAs and other systems to make it more robot-proof but also frustrate humans. However, the larger problem is that lawyers, law enforcement and others that might approach you with very serious issues are loathe to use forms as they don’t create a paper trail on their end. They prefer, email, fax or other means that they can verify. Unhappy attorneys create problems and you don’t want any problems.

A Better Solution: Like moderators, forms are great but the problem is relying on them solely. For most abuse complaints, a form is a great shortcut and can streamline the process, but if you can’t accept complaints over email or fax, there is going to be an issue at some point. Once again, use your form but also offer at least some email contact on your site and register your site with the USCO for optimal accessibility.

3. Fax Only

The Big Idea: Forget about having people send emails, using moderators or even using forms to contact the admins on abuse matters, give them a fax number and leave it at that. People with serious issues will use the fax but others will simply give up and leave. It’s a great way to weed out those who are serious about filing a complaint from those who are just being trivial and wanting to report something stupid.

The Problem: Though eFaxing has brought fax to the desktop, fax machines themselves are going the way of the dodo. Requiring someone to send a fax not only requires them to print out the letter, but also find the fax machine. Even if someone is lucky enough to have a printer and a fax machine in their home or office, it is still a series of extra steps that are not necessary.

However, it gets even worse on your end. Since nearly every abuse complaint contains a URL, you now have to either scan the fax in (and hope the OCR works correctly) or hand-type the URL.

The entire fax-to-report-abuse process is the model of inefficiency and wastes both paper and time. Also, once again, if you make things too hard on people, they will be tempted to go over your head and complain to your host, something that can create major headaches for you.

A Better Solution: Email. Pure and simple. Though offering a fax is a fine back up for law firms and others that prefer it, offering it exclusively just makes things harder on everyone. Use your fax and email together, which is trivial to do, and let those that need to contact you decide which they want. Google, this one is for you

2. Irrelevant Auto-Responders

The Big Idea: Most abuse complaints fall into one of a few categories so, by setting up a series of of autoresponders, you can handle many cases without the need for a human to even get involved. This can save admins a great deal of time and actually help many problems get resolved faster.

The Problem: Autoresponders are probably the most commonly misused tool in abuse handling. Though autoresponders have a role, setting up a good system that actually helps users takes a great deal of time and energy. It is an investment that only pays off in the very long run or on very large sites.

Several sites have sent me autoresponders that not only don’t apply but actually offend me. Several social networking sites, for example, tell me to simply ” block” of the offending person even though I am not a member and my issue could not be resolved by blocking even if I were.

For the most part, autoresponders are used to just repeat simple warnings and instructions clearly posted on the site, at this point, though, it is too late as the complaint has, theoretically, been filed.

A Better Solution: Using an autoresponder to let me know has been received is not necessary, but not annoying either. Sometimes, it is even comforting. Beyond that, the only notices one should get is when action has been taken.

Most people don’t mind stock letters in these situations, but letting machines handle abuse complaints is foolish at best unless you have a very robust abuse handling process. In general, I want sites to let me know when they get the complaint and let me know when it is handled, beyond that, I don’t need any correspondence.

Stupid autoresponders cause confusion and might actually cause people like me to take steps that waste both of our time. Once an email has been sent is not the time to educate users about the block function, though a good stock letter can help anyone who might be ignorant of that feature and sent an email anyway.

1. Silence

The Big Idea: Abuse is hard, if we simply don’t provide any contact information, ignore the complaints that we get or simply don’t provide any valid contact information, we can avoid having to deal with it.

The Problem: At best, you run the risk of your site becoming a cesspool of spam, copyright infringement, pornography, etc. At worst you, run the risk of finding yourself in court as you sacrifice your safe harbor protections and could even face criminal issues depending on what your users are posting and how complacent you are in it.

Ignoring abuse does not make it go away, but it could make you legally responsible for it.

A Better Solution: Creating a real system for dealing with abuse. Though the systems above are imperfect in many ways, they are better than ignoring the problem. It is better to make mistakes in handling abuse than ignore it altogether, the latter is just going to bring a completely different caliber of problems to your doorstep.


Abuse is tough and, as part of my consulting services I offer to work with hosts in these areas, building better systems and resolving disputes.

I understand well that hosts don’t want to deal with these issues or want to handle them as cheaply as possible. Not only does abuse not generate any revenue, it costs customers and puts a strain on resources, which are now more precious than ever. Abuse handling, however, is not just a necessary evil, but a long-term investment.

Sites that handle such issues poorly become known as no-man lands and those scare away image-conscious advertisers and professional users alike. It may be easy to draw users when you are known as a place with no rules, but it is hard to profit from them.

The companies that do the best financially are the ones that don’t create walled gardens, but create gardens with the fewest weeds. If you let the parasites roam free, they eventually do take over and kill off anything special that might have bloomed.

These are not places most people want to spend a lot of time and, thus, will not be good for people that actually want to use your service. In the end, it is up to the host what type of site they want to build. The law and common decency can only do so much.

People will breed what they want on the Web, the consequences will come later. It is just a matter of whether or not people can actually see the completely predictable outcome before they embark. Sadly, it seems that many can’t.


Have you had a horrible experience reporting abuse to a site/host? Let me know in the comments!

Want to Reuse or Republish this Content?

If you want to feature this article in your site, classroom or elsewhere, just let us know! We usually grant permission within 24 hours.

Click Here to Get Permission for Free