Junk, Spam, and Phishing Email

Last updated: August 29, 2022

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Is it junk, spam or phishing?

Detecting whether email is junk, spam, or phishing is a challenge at the University of Washington. This is due primarily to the UW’s unusual email routing, which has been designed to support the UW community’s highly distributed IT infrastructure. The UW provides two centrally managed productivity platforms with email services (UW Google and UW Office 365). UW email also allows emails addressed from UW email addresses to be sent from anywhere, and incoming emails addressed to UW email addresses to be forwarded to anywhere.

Email sent to and from UW email addresses generally passes first through UW’s Email Infrastructure service infrastructure where it is scanned by Proofpoint, a software package that filters the majority of junk, spam, and phishing email, as well as email containing malware. Once email has passed through the Email Infrastructure service, email is then delivered to the destination mailbox as selected on the UW email forwarding manage page. Upon delivery to the destination mailbox (e.g. UW Gmail, UW Office 365, consumer Gmail, Outlook.com, Yahoo!, etc.) email is then filtered again by the platform managing the destination mailbox (e.g. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, etc.) as junk, spam, or phishing email.

Read more about the Email Infrastructure service’s junk email handling and protecting your email.

Determining if email is junk, spam, or phishing is up to each email service vendor (Proofpoint, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! etc.) and is based on a wide variety of potential parameters that can change minute-by-minute. Additionally, user-implemented email filtering rules can also influence whether an email is filtered as junk, spam, or phishing.

If you send an email to or from a UW email address and receive a Non-Delivery Report (NDR) email

Non-Delivery Reports (NDR) are emails sent to a sender to report that an email has failed to deliver. These emails come from the last successful system to receive the email, not from the system that rejected or failed to accept the email. These reports should have details on why the email failed to deliver. Many times, the reason will simply be because the email address the email was sent to is no longer valid.

However, if the NDR email says an email was rejected as spam, try these steps:

  • Send from a system officially “allowed” by your email domain’s Sender Policy. For those sending from @uw.edu email addresses, these include UW Google and UW Office 365 email services
    • This does not currently include smtp.washington.edu and smtp.uw.edu that may be used with POP or IMAP clients to access UW Google and UW Office 365 mailboxes
  • Never include links that immediately require a login
  • Avoid using ALL CAPS in emails
  • Avoid using excessive exclamation marks early and often in emails
  • Remove any links or HTML from your signature
  • Avoid using excessive HTML in emails with relatively little content
  • Remove any potentially controversial or words commonly used in spam emails

If you try the above without success, try these steps:

  • Switch to sending emails as plain text (instructions for Gmail and Outlook on the web)
  • Try sending the email from a different email address. If this works but you already have gotten this far down the list, then it’s likely that your specific email address has been marked as a problem. If you are using a UW email address, please contact help@uw.edu for help in evaluating your situation. If you are using an outside address, please contact that organization for help
  • If you have tried all the above recommendations that are practical for your situation and the situation persists, please forward the NDR email as an attachment to help@uw.edu

If you are sending email that is being delivered to recipients’ spam/junk folders

If you are sending email that is being delivered to spam/junk folders for recipients utilizing UW Gmail, UW Office 365, commercial Gmail, Outlook.com, etc., try these steps:

  • Send from a system officially “allowed” by your email domain’s Sender Policy. For those sending from @uw.edu email addresses, these include UW Google and UW Office 365 email services
    • This does not currently include smtp.washington.edu and smtp.uw.edu that may be used with POP or IMAP clients to access UW Google and UW Office 365 mailboxes
  • Never include links that immediately require a login
  • Avoid using ALL CAPS in emails
  • Avoid using excessive exclamation marks early and often in emails
  • Remove any links or HTML from your signature
  • Avoid using excessive HTML in emails with relatively little content
  • Remove any potentially controversial or words commonly used in spam emails

If you try the above without success, try these steps:

  • Switch to sending emails as plain text (Instructions for Gmail and Outlook on the web)
  • Try sending the email from a different email address. If this works but you already have gotten this far down the list, then likely your specific email address has been marked as a problem. If you are using a UW email address, please contact help@uw.edu for help in evaluating your situation. If you are using an outside address, please contact that organization for help

Read more about Gmail’s sender guidelines and Microsoft’s sender guidelines.

If you have tried all of the above which are practical for your situation, the recipient(s) will need to contact their email provider.

If you are receiving email that is incorrectly being delivered to your spam/junk folder

UW Gmail

Please note that emails allowed by mailbox rules may skip the default “Inbox” view; instead, use the “All Email” view to search for these emails.

If you are using UW Gmail and are finding emails in your spam folder that are being incorrectly delivered as spam, try these steps:

If you try the above without success, you can:

As a last resort, you can:

  • Join this UW Group to opt out of all UW Gmail junk, spam, and phishing email protections

UW Office 365

If you are using UW Office 365 and are finding emails in your Junk E-Mail folder that are being incorrectly delivered as spam, try these steps:

  • Under Filters, select “Trust email from my contacts” (Outlook on the web)
  • Add the sender as a contact (Outlook on the web)
  • Add the sender to Safe senders and domains (Outlook on the web)
    • To add a domain, enter only the text after the @ symbol e.g. “uw.edu” instead of “@uw.edu”)
  • Remove senders and their domains from Blocked senders and domains (Outlook on the web)
  • Verify that you do not have rules or sweeps that could send emails to your Junk E-Mail folder (Outlook on the web rules, Outlook on the web sweeps)
  • Verify that all devices and email clients you have configured to check your UW Office 365 account have no rules or filtering in place

If you taken all of the steps above and email is still incorrectly being delivered to your UW Office 365 Junk E-Mail folder, please forward the email as an attachment to help@uw.edu.

Confirmed spam/junk email is NOT delivered to the appropriate spam/junk folder (UW Google)

This scenario is specific to UW Google only.

Some email messages that have already been confirmed as spam/junk at the individual or organizational level are no longer directed to the spam/junk folder.

To address Google’s overly aggressive spam filtering, Google service settings were modified on 3/24/2022 so that the new UW front-end servers would handle SPAM filtration, resulting in a significant reduction of false positives. Emails from safe senders were no longer going directly to the spam folder. However, Google automatically applies a banner to all emails that do not meet its criteria as a safe sender, regardless of the system settings in place for an organization. At this time, Google does not provide a means to suppress this banner.

Dark gray rounded rectangle box with the warning "This message was not sent to Spam based on your organization's settings."

Work Around: UW Google users will need to create email filters that use the “Skip the Inbox (Archive it)” or “Delete it” action to stop spam/junk email from appearing in the main inbox folder. Instructions on how to create custom filters for Gmail are found on Google Support’s page Create rules to filter your emails.

UW-IT continues to work with the vendor on a permanent solution, but as of June 2022, there is no estimated time to repair (ETR) for this issue.

On 3/24/2022, the UW Google services settings were updated to send messages marked by the UW’s front-end servers as suspected SPAM to users’ spam/junk folder. The change was required to address the increasing levels of business impacts caused by false positives from Google’s aggressive SPAM filtering based on its own interpretation of Internet Standards regarding spam/junk email. Significant issues for many critical business processes and communications have been resolved because of this change.

Around the same time, the UW’s front-end servers were also changed to our new Proofpoint infrastructure which is filtering SPAM and Phishing at a much higher rate than our old system while maintaining the new low rate of false positives.

While these changes have resolved significant issues for many critical business processes and communications, it has resulted in several unintended issues that Google does not provide documentation or support to address.

The first issue is the banner warning that is added by Google to any email Google’s system flags as potential SPAM. At this time, there is no way for the individual or UW-IT to suppress showing this banner. Unfortunately, this means that business processes and communications, including those originating from trusted UW sources, are impacted by a perceived air of suspicion caused by false positives from Google’s system.

The second more significant issue is that Google has made a design decision to bypass user blocked address lists that is not well documented and runs contrary to most other products in the industry. When email on a user’s blocked address list is received, it now will only show the banner message and not be moved to the Spam folder. This is particularly problematic for users who might have been using this feature to block incoming emails from common addresses used for marketing and notifications that can’t be blocked for all users.

Currently, Google does not provide any documentation or support resources to resolve these problems. UW-IT is left with no configuration choices available for our systems that does not cause some type of negative end user impact.

For now, UW Google users who want to block addresses will need to implement a work around by creating email filters that use the “Skip the Inbox (Archive it)” or “Delete it” action.

UW-IT is working with Google on resolving these issues, but we are not optimistic. If the ongoing issues with UW Google is too disruptive, UW Office 365 hosted mailboxes are a well-established alternative with a robust spam/junk/block system that supports individual level reporting lists.

The long-term plan is to add an end user block list capability to the UW’s front-end systems, but there is no estimated delivery date available for that feature.

If you would like to be notified when there are updates to either the banner issue, blocked addresses issue, and/or user opt-in for re-enabling an equivalent to the old configuration, please let us know which ones and we can add you to the notifications for the backlog items.

Support

For further assistance, please contact UW-IT at help@uw.edu or 206-221-5000.