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A Comprehensive Guide to CAN-SPAM Act Compliance

By Sayem Mustafa | Reviewed By Semra Islam
Published March 20, 2024

In the ever-evolving realm of digital communication, where emails are an integral part of business interactions and marketing activities, regulations are crucial to protect consumers from the barrage of unsolicited communications. The Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM Act) is a significant legislative measure implemented to regulate the volatile realm of email marketing.

Understanding and complying with the CAN-SPAM Act is a legal requirement and one that is crucial for organizations and marketers to maintain a positive brand image as they navigate the complex waters of email outreach.

This comprehensive guide walks you through the CAN-SPAM Act’s complexities, unraveling its provisions, exploring best practices, and ultimately equipping you with the knowledge to ensure your email communications comply with the law and operate ethically.

Understanding CAN-SPAM Act Basics

The CAN-SPAM Act, enacted in December 2003 in the United States, sets rules for commercial messages defined as those primarily advertising or promoting a commercial product or service through electronic mail, including emails and promotions on commercial websites. The law ensures recipients have the right to opt-out, sets out a number of obligations on the sender, and imposes severe penalties for violations. It applies universally, whether the messages are directed at consumers or businesses.

Key Provisions of the CAN-SPAM Act

The CAN-SPAM Act outlines several requirements to regulate commercial email and protect consumers from unsolicited and misleading emails. Key provisions of the CAN-SPAM Act include:

Prohibition of Misleading Header Information

The use of fraudulent or deceptive header information is prohibited under the Act. The sender of the email must be correctly identified by the "From," "To," and routing information, which includes the email address and originating domain name

Prohibition of Deceptive Subject Lines

The subject line of the email should accurately reflect the content of the message.

Inclusion of a Valid Physical Address

Emails sent for business purposes must include the sender's current physical postal address.  This could be the sender's current residential address, a post office box officially registered with the U.S. Postal Service, or a private mailbox registered with a commercial mail-receiving agency authorized under Postal Service regulations.

Clear and Conspicuous Opt-Out Mechanism

The email must include a prominent and clear option for recipients to opt out of receiving further marketing emails from the sender. Ensure the notice is easily recognizable, readable, and understandable by an ordinary person, and enhance clarity through creative use of type size, color, and placement.

The emails must include an unsubscribe option that makes it simple for recipients to choose not to receive further communications. While organizations can offer a menu for opting out of specific message types, it's crucial to include an option to stop all marketing messages and take precautions to prevent the spam filter from blocking these opt-out requests.

Prompt Processing of Opt-Out Requests

Any provided opt-out mechanism must be capable of processing opt-out requests for a minimum of 30 days following the transmission of your message. Senders are required to comply with recipients' requests to opt-out immediately. Under the Act, senders have up to 10 business days to process opt-out requests. No fees can be charged, and no personally identifying information beyond an email address should be demanded from the recipient.

The organization cannot impose any additional steps beyond responding to an email or visiting a single webpage on a website as a prerequisite for honoring an opt-out request. Once individuals express their desire not to receive further messages, the organization is prohibited from selling or transferring their email addresses unless transferring to a company hired to assist in compliance with the CAN-SPAM Act.

Identified as an Advertisement

Emails must be clearly and prominently marked as advertisements.

Prohibition of Harvesting Email Addresses

The Act prohibits the unauthorized use of automated methods to collect email addresses from websites or online services.

Requirements for Commercial Email Messages

Emails classified as commercial must be marked as such. The Act provides clear and straightforward instructions on how to accomplish this.

Joint Liability for Affiliate Marketing

The Act establishes joint liability for individuals or entities who use others to send commercial emails on their behalf, holding both parties responsible for compliance.

What Types of Messages Does the CAN-SPAM Act Apply to?

The CAN-SPAM Act primarily applies to commercial email messages, which are messages that have the primary purpose of advertising or promoting a commercial product or service. The Act provides regulations and recommendations tailored to these kinds of messaging. The main standards for determining whether email communication is covered under the CAN-SPAM Act are as follows:

Commercial Content

The email must include commercial content, which indicates that promoting or advertising a commercial item or service is its main goal.

Transaction or Relationship Messages Exclusion

Commercial and transactional/relationship communications differ under the Act. Transactional or relationship communications include information regarding an ongoing transaction or relationship (recent transaction, account updates, or warranty information), which is frequently exempt from some CAN-SPAM regulations.

Mixed-Use Messages

An email is deemed "mixed-use" if it includes commercial material and information about a transaction or relationship. In these situations, the message's primary purpose determines whether or not it is covered under the Act.

If the recipient would infer from the subject line that the message is promotional, it qualifies as a commercial message according to CAN-SPAM regulations. Similarly, if the primary content related to the transactional or relational aspect is not prominently featured at the outset, the message is considered a commercial message under the CAN-SPAM Act.

Electronic Mail

Messages transmitted via email and other electronic communication channels are subject to the CAN-SPAM Act.

Transactional Emails and CAN-SPAM Act Compliance

Transactional emails provide details about a transaction or relationship. They are often exempt from some of the regulations imposed by the CAN-SPAM Act and are subject to a different set of rules. The Act recognizes that certain emails are not meant for commercial advertising and are mainly used for transactional or informative purposes.

Here are some specifics about transactional emails and CAN-SPAM Act compliance:

Clear Identification as Transactional

Transactional emails should be labeled as such so that recipients can distinguish them from other emails.

Exemption from Opt-Out Requirements

In contrast to commercial emails, transactional emails are exempt from including an opt-out or unsubscribe option. This is because these emails are considered necessary for a transaction to be completed.

Primary Purpose Determination

Whether an email is categorized as transactional or commercial depends on its main goal. Certain CAN-SPAM regulations do not apply to emails whose main objective is transactional or relationship-based (e.g., purchase confirmations, account updates, or delivery alerts)

Transactional Elements

Transactional emails typically include information directly related to a transaction or existing relationship, including order confirmations, shipping notifications, product updates, and account statements.

Limited Promotional Content

As long as the main objective of the email is still transactional, transactional emails may include promotional material in addition to transactional or relationship-related information. Organizations should ensure that receivers are not misled about the purpose of the communication.

Monitoring and Enforcement of the CAN-SPAM Act

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the US consumer protection agency, is primarily responsible for enforcing the CAN-SPAM Act. The FTC has the authority to update regulations and prosecute individuals and organizations that violate the CAN-SPAM Act’s provisions.

Penalties for Non-Compliance

Organizations violating the CAN-SPAM Act may be penalized up to $50,120 for each email. In addition to organizations, individuals may also be held accountable for violating the CAN-SPAM Act. For instance, the organization that created the message and the one whose product is advertised may be held legally accountable.

Violating certain provisions of the CAN-SPAM Act carries aggravated criminal penalties, such as imprisonment. These include:

  • unauthorized access to another individual’s computer to spread spam,
  • utilizing fraudulent data to register for multiple domain names or email addresses,
  • using a computer to relay or retransmit several spam messages to deceive others about the message's origin,
  • harvesting email addresses or generating them through a dictionary attack,
  • using open proxies or relays without permission.

Organizations may have to ensure consumer redress under Section 19 of the FTC Act, apart from incurring civil penalties. Redress could take the form of compensating customers for their lost time and the amount they spent.

Best Practices for CAN-SPAM Act Compliance

Ensuring CAN-SPAM Act compliance requires organizations and marketers to engage in ethical and legal practices and follow best practices:

Accurate Header Information

Ensure the "From," "To," and routing information accurately identify the individual or organization sending the message.

Non-Deceptive Subject Lines

Steer clear of misleading or deceptive topic lines and ensure the email subject lines appropriately convey the email’s content.

Clear and Conspicuous Identification

Clearly identify that the nature of the email is advertising, and receivers can easily recognize that it's an advertising email.

Include a Physical Address

The email should include a working physical postal address for your organization.

Provide a Clear Opt-Out Mechanism

Provide recipients with a clear and easy mechanism to unsubscribe from receiving future emails.

Promptly Process Opt-Out Requests

Honor opt-out requests promptly, as the CAN-SPAM Act gives senders a maximum of 10 business days to process opt-out requests.

Transactional vs. Commercial Classification

Clearly identify which emails are commercial and transactional.

Avoid Email Harvesting

Do not employ automated measures to harvest email addresses from websites or online services without consent. To send commercial emails, obtain consent.

Regularly Update Email Lists

Ensure email lists contain updated email address information. Remove individuals who have opted out or unsubscribed from receiving emails.

Educate Your Team

Individuals engaged in email outreach must receive training on the CAN-SPAM Act’s provisions and best practices

Monitor Affiliate Marketing Activities

When utilizing affiliates for email marketing, ensure their email practices comply with the CAN-SPAM Act.

Review and Adjust Practices

Regularly review and update your email marketing efforts to accommodate evolving regulatory updates.


In a digital era where email communication is escalating, navigating the CAN-SPAM Act’s provisions is essential for organizations and marketers to ensure responsible and ethical email communication.

As a good practice, organizations must obtain consent, provide clear and accurate sender information, and offer recipients an easy opt-out mechanism.

Request a demo to learn how Securiti can help you ensure compliance with the CAN-SPAM Act.

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