When email filters go too far

Office for Mere Mortals
Your beginners guide to the secrets of Microsoft Office
Invalid email address
Tips and help for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook from Microsoft Office experts.  Give it a try. You can unsubscribe at any time.  Office for Mere Mortals has been running for over 20 years, we've never, ever revealed or sold subscriber details.  Privacy policy

An all-too-common story from New Zealand where someone’s name causes their email to be refused.

A somewhat funny email story from New Zealand this weekend shows how email filters have to be configured very carefully.

Gay Hamilton sent an innocent customer enquiry to NZ Telecom (the major telco) and was surprised to see the message refused because her message used the word ‘gay’!

It seems NZ Telecom has an email filter in place to prevent abusive emails reaching their staff.  That’s fair enough, people sometimes write the most astonishing things in email (that they probably would not say on the phone or put in a letter) and it’s quite right for a company to refuse messages that go beyond polite discourse.

Whomever configured this filter went overboard in their definition of ‘bad’ or ‘inappropriate’ words and it’s a lesson to anyone who has such a filter.  You need to be especially careful with words that have multiple meanings like ‘gay’.

There are variations on this story in papers around the world, we went to the New Zealand Herald for a more complete version of the story.  Here’s their quote of the entire ‘bounce’ message.


“[Your email] was identified by our content filtering processes as containing language that may be considered inappropriate for business-like communication,” the email said. The offensive word was the woman’s name: “The content which caused this to happen was … ‘gay’ eight times, at two points each, for an expression score of 16 points.”

So it seems the problem wasn’t just the word ‘gay’ but the number of times it was used.

At least in this case there was a response and Ms Hamilton knew that her message didn’t reach a human.  In many situations, email deemed ‘bad’ is simply deleted with no notice to either the sender or intended receiver. 

We see this happen more and more, overzealous spam filters at companies or ISP’s siliently delete messages without consideration for the possiblity of error.

Latest news & secrets of Microsoft Office

Microsoft Office experts give you tips and help for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook.

Give it a try. You can unsubscribe at any time.  Office Watch has been running for over 20 years, we've never, ever revealed or sold subscriber details.  Privacy policy
Invalid email address