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The Limitations (and Even Dangers) of Free Fax Services

According to an article written by the Washington Post, a survey of businesses for the year 2017 found that 82% of large firms (those with 500+ staff) reported that the number of faxes sent was steady or increasing over 2016. An informal survey of IT professionals in an online forum in 2017 found that 89% still sent faxes.

Simply stated, even though technology has advanced by leaps and bounds over the last 50 years, the sending and receiving of faxes has not disappeared.

The Changing Landscape of Fax Technology

In the past, and certainly through the 1990's at least, faxing was handled on the machine-to-machine level. A physical piece of equipment sitting at one location was connected to another fax machine somewhere else. The connection could be hard-wired, or more commonly the telephone system was used, with both machines having unique telephone numbers.

The document(s) to be faxed were manually fed into one machine (the sender) and transmitted data was sent to the other machine (the receiver) which printed out a hard copy at that location.

While this equipment is still being used today, the landscape has shifted considerably due to the ubiquitous presence of the Internet. Instead of physical machines, documents of various types can be sent from one computer to another via the web.

Initially, certain types of businesses and industries - notably those operating in the financial, healthcare and government workspace - were reluctant to adopt this technology because transmission of emails is not secure unless encryption is used, and an emailed signature was not considered legally valid. But the Electronic Signatures Act of 2000 recognized digital signatures as valid. End-to-end encryption methods are now more widely available, although by no means universally used.

The Rise of Free Fax Services - Right for You?

The new paradigm of faxing has opened up the way for businesses offering free fax services. There are hundreds of these services operating today, perhaps thousands if overseas (non-U.S.) companies are included.

While some of these services are totally free to use, and others offer a basic service free with paid upgrade options, the real question is: are they right for your business?

While some may choose the free option due to the obvious advantage that they are no-cost, there are many businesses who should consider a paid fax service - and some who cannot use a free service at all.

Forced "Branded" Cover Letters. One distinguishing characteristic of many free fax services is the presence of their company logo/information that is displayed on the first page (cover page) of any fax you send. This certainly does not communicate a professional image to the recipient of your faxes, even though the cover letter might just be disposed of. But if your fax is kept in digital format, whenever it is opened that advertisement will be seen. Not good. Why should your fax be turned into a billboard to advertise another business?

Page Restrictions. Most free fax services impose a limitation on the amount of faxing you can do. This limitation can come in two ways - a limit on the length of each fax you send (often charging you if you exceed that length, if they permit longer ones at all) and/or a limit on the number of faxes you can send per day or per month.

While paid services may impose limits, they are usually much higher, and have attractive pricing options to match your anticipated faxing volume. Some paid services impose no limits at all, either on the length of an individual fax or the total volume of faxes. For businesses that do not send many faxes this may not be an issue, but for businesses or other organizations who send many faxes or longer faxes, the "free" option is not a great - or even good - one for them.

Delays in Sending. A typical fax service will route the documents to be faxed from all their users through one or more servers (a specialized computer that handles routing and storage). That server may push paid faxes to the top of the list for sending, while that free fax of yours will sit for a while at the bottom of the queue until the paid-for faxes have all been sent. This delays the transmission of your critical fax, and will probably not be known to you.

Send-Only Your Only Option. Those who depend on faxing for their operations don't just need to send faxes, they need to receive them as well. Typical free fax services do not give you a personalized, persistent fax number, so there is no way for you to receive faxes from others through the same source. Paid services will have this option though as it is a part of the package of services they typically provide.

Lack of Business-Friendly Options. If you need the ability to schedule faxes to be sent in advance, or detailed delivery confirmation logs, or sending fax broadcasts (something similar to an email blast, but in fax format) you will find you cannot do this with free fax services. Your only option will be to use a paid service.

Mixing Voice and Fax Transmission. Free services will often use the same carrier lines to transmit both voice calls as well as fax transmission, especially if they are selling/offering telephone call solutions to businesses. This can "clog up" and cause a bottleneck, causing you delays when you fax. A professional-level online faxing service, on the other hand, will operate a fax-only infrastructure which is much more efficient.

Non-Existent Customer Support. When faxing, sometimes there are transmission failures. Or the quality of the received documents may need adjustment. Whatever the issue, if your business depends - really depends - on a smooth faxing operation, you need customer support. Typical free fax services do not offer any support - or the support they offer may be limited in scope (what issues they will help you with) or timeliness of reply (i.e., you send an email or form inquiry and WAIT). Instead, you need to locate a fax provider that offers live customer support. And for businesses operating in the U.S., customer support based there, not overseas, can be a critical factor in getting issues resolved quickly and completely.

Lack of HIPPA Compliance. If your business requires handling the financial information of others, or medical records, or government documents, free faxing is definitely out of the question. Why? Because these businesses, like banking, accounting, hospital, clinic, doctor's offices, tax preparation services, attorneys and the like are required by the HIPPA law to maintain the security and privacy of all the information they handle.

This includes both the transmission and storage of information of information. This means that your service must provide secure online faxing during transmission (encrypted transmission) and secure storage of any data that is retained in the cloud. With a free service, on the other hand, you have no checks in place to make sure that customer/user data confidentiality is being observed. And failure to comply with HIPPA regulations, when your business is required to, can get you into big trouble with governmental agencies.

Ideally, you should look for a paid fax service provider that provides AES 256-bit encryption and uses the TLS 1.2 protocol during actual data transmission. It should also be able to provide documentation that it is in regulatory compliance with HIPPA, GLBA and SOX regulations.

High Fax Transmission Failure Rates. As noted above, most free services (and some paid ones) will mix phone calling and fax transmissions, and in addition may route all of this traffic through one carrier. If that carrier service should go down faxing will not be possible. Better paid fax service providers will use a network with built in redundancies/backup routing to maintain integrity and to ensure that your fax actually gets delivered.

Lack of Integration Options. Free faxing services typically offer only one or two options for sending faxes, for example sending an email to a phone number or special email account. Paid fax services, on the other hand, will offer you different ways to handle your faxing. You will of course have the email option. But they may offer an online portal or even a smartphone app.

Professional-level paid faxing services may also offer you API (Application Programming Interface) connectivity, which allows your existing in-house software/systems to connect and communicate directly with the faxing service. With an API option, your staff can continue to use the same faxing systems that they become comfortable with, meaning little or no time will be wasted in training them on a new system.

In summary, if you need to:

  • Send larger amounts of faxes - especially every day
  • Minimize transmission failures
  • Have sending/receiving options other than through an email client
  • Receive as well as send faxes
  • Maintain HIPPA or other regulatory compliance
  • Integrate with your existing fax systems

Then a paid, secure online fax service provider is your best option, rather than a free service where your options are limited, are impractical to scale, and where security and government regulation compliance is sketchy at best. Choose wisely!