PSBL: Easy On, Easy Off

The Passive Spam Block List, or PSBL ( is a spamtrap-driven anti-spam blocklist that has been around since at least June, 2003. Created by Rik van Riel, who explains on the PSBL website that “the idea is that 99% of the hosts that send me spam never send me legitimate email, but that people whose mail server was used by spammers should still be able to send me email."

The passive nature of the list means that there's no probing or poking of remote servers on the internet (which tends to make ISPs very angry and was a significant issue back in the days of testing for open relays). It also means that there is no debate or argument with listees. As the PSBL website states, “Want to remove your mail server from PSBL? Go ahead.” No need for lawsuit threats, arguments over why listing is denied, or anything of the sort. Anyone can remove any entry for any reason.
Sounds scary, doesn't it? In theory, bad guys could game the system, and rob PSBL of its ability to stop spam. Thankfully, the data shows that this isn't something to worry about. PSBL is a pretty neat tool that can help system administrators filter or reject spam in a way that makes it very easy to prevent false positives. And even though it doesn't take a line as hard as Spamhaus or Spamcop, it manages to block some spam that they do not.

Success Rates
PSBL's success rate seems to greatly vary from week to week. Over the past ninety days, its overall effective rate is 41.4% against the spam hitting my spamtraps. Over the past thirty days, it has been 36.5% effective against spam.

False Positives
False positives are often non-zero, but generally very low. For the past eleven weeks, consistently under 1%. I suspect that this is due to the “easy on, easy off” removal policy-- If anyone trying to send you mail receives a bounce message back from you referring to the PSBL website, it's very easy for them to have their sending IP address removed from the list.

Additive Numbers
Even though PSBL catches a lower amount of spam (on its own) than some other more well-known blocklists, it manages to catch some spam that those other lists do not. To determine this, I took the last thirty days worth of results, and looked for intersection and overlap between PSBL and other blocklists.
What I found is that about 9% of successful PSBL hits against spam stopped spam from IP addresses not found on Spamhaus ZEN. When compared against Spamcop, the numbers were even higher -- about 13% of successful PSBL hits stopped spam from IP addresses not listed on Spamcop.

This suggests to me that PSBL would be an excellent blocklist to configure second or third in your mail server configuration. That 9% of IP addresses not found on both Spamhaus and PSBL won't lead to a straight 9% boost in spam filtering effectiveness, due to lists being different sizes. But, if your data is like mine, you're likely to receive a boost of 3% or more.

Conclusion: I recommend PSBL. It helps to block spam that some other lists could miss, and it has friendly anti-false positive policies that make any revealed blocking issues easy to resolve.

The usual caveats applies here: This data illustrates how my own mail streams intersect with PSBL. Your mileage may vary, and I strongly recommend that you test and review results against your own mail streams.