You put quite a lot of work into growing your email list, writing a strong subject line, designing a beautiful campaign, and still, a significant percentage of your subscribers may not ever see your email.

One out of every five emails you send (20%) may not ever reach your subscriber’s inbox.

One of the most critical challenges faced by email marketers is a low delivery rate. Although several factors affect your deliverability, spam traps are one of the most misunderstood and biggest of them all.

What are spam traps?

Used by major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and blacklist providers, spam traps are a type of fraud management tool to identify spammers so they can block emails from them.

While a spam trap looks like a real email address, it doesn’t belong to a real person and can’t actually be used for any kind of communication. The only way one could end up on your email list since spam trap addresses can’t opt-in to receive emails is if you’re not abiding by the rules of permission-based email marketing, or if you’re not maintaining healthy email lists.

Understanding Spam Traps:

Sometimes referred to as a honeypot, a spam trap will appear to be a real email address that belongs to a real person, but actually, it isn’t.

As spam traps don’t actually belong to an individual and so have value in outbound communication. Sending any inbound email messages to a spam trap would flag the sender as a spammer since the spam trap addresses never opt-in to receive any emails.

Failing to maintain a healthy email list and not abiding by the rules of permission-based email marketing is the only way spam traps could end up on your email lists.

Blacklist providers (i.e. Composite Blocking, SpamCop) and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) commonly use spam traps to catch malicious senders. However, even lawful senders who use poor list building strategies or don’t maintain good email hygiene can raise a red flag, too.

Who Creates Spam Traps?

  • ISPs & mailbox providers (e.g. Verizon, Comcast, AOL, Microsoft, etc.)
  • Nonprofits and volunteer groups (e.g. Spamhaus, Project Honeypot, etc.)
  • Individual anti-spam crusaders
  • Organizations selling spam-filtering services (e.g. Barracuda, Trend Micro, etc.)

Why Should You Care About Spam Traps?

You might already have sent an email to a spam trap and not even know about it. Having even one spam trap on your mailing list, depending on the type of spam trap, can significantly impact your ability to get your emails into the inboxes of your subscribers.

And if you’re sending emails to spam traps, it’s considered as an indicator that you’ve used bad practices to collect email addresses, or at the very least, you failed to do a good job of keeping your email list clean. To inbox providers and the anti-spam organizations, this makes you appear like a spammer, which could have a significant impact on your sender reputation. And the email senders with a bad reputation may not get their emails delivered to their subscribers’ inboxes.

Types of Spam Traps:

Even without knowingly doing anything wrong, you can hit a spam trap. This is due to the different ways that the spam traps are created.

So, to understand how a spam trap could end up on your email list it is critical to know the different kinds of spam traps that are out there.

Here, we’ll focus more on the spam traps that are most common:

Typo Spam Traps:

Have you ever sent out an email to Yahoo or Gmail and noticed that it didn’t bounce? Have you ever misspelled “Google” in your web browser, but it still took you to Google.com?

Typo spam traps work like this. They are real email addresses that do not bounce, in spite of their domain misspelling. To get insight into marketers’ best practices, ISPs set them up.

They create email addresses that contain intentional mistakes, usually the mistakes marketers are most likely to make when filling in their information in a form. And then they analyze the emails those email addresses receive to detect and establish phishing and other malicious practices.

Recycled/Grey Spam Traps:

Do you still remember that email address you had in high school that you no longer use? Blacklist providers and ISPs usually take abandoned email addresses and use them to identify and catch spammers. These kinds of spam traps are known as recycled or grey spam traps.

Again, there are several ways to end up with a grey spam trap on your email list if you follow the best practices of email marketing. However, here are two specific scenarios;

  • You acquired your email list from a third party
  • Or you may have added that email address to your email list a while ago. In the meantime, a blacklist provider or an ISP has turned it into a spam trap

And in the latter scenario, the emails you sent to that particular email address must have hard bounced at some point. Not removing that hard bounced email address caused you to get a grey spam trap on your email list, and it may be jeopardizing your sender reputation as we speak.

It’s very critical to be in total control of your email list, from hard bounces to opt-ins and unsubscribes. The first step you can take to avoid spam traps is by paying close attention to your engagement rates, especially your hard bounce and open rate.

Furthermore, to keep recycled spam traps at bay:

  • Segment out your email list for those who don’t engage with your emails
  • Permanently suppress hard bounces
  • Never use an email list if you are unsure about their good opt-in practices

Pristine Spam Traps:

Blacklist providers and the ISPs consider it abusive when you send emails to people who don’t expect any communication from you. This is where pristine, or pure, spam traps come in to play.

Blacklist providers or the ISPs create email addresses that are publicly accessible blog posts or forums so the web scrapers can easily find and collect them.

Unluckily, a significant number of email lists that are available for purchase come from web scrappers. And to protect its users and catch potential spammers, ISPs will filter and possibly block email senders who send emails to pristine spam traps.

Pristine spam traps are extremely harmful to your email sender reputation due to their very nature. It’s quite easy to understand why: the one and the only way they can get on an email list is when an email marketer doesn’t abide by ethical email marketing practices.

Invalid email addresses:

If a person subscribes to your email list using an email address that contains a typo, or they intentionally submit a fake email address. For example, when a user is requested to enter an email address (commonly seen with gated content) but they don’t want to actually receive email from them, you carry the risk of it being a spam trap.

Domain Spam Traps:

Even though domain spam traps are equally risky, email marketers talk less about them.

In this scenario, every email address from a specific domain will be a spam trap. Blacklist providers would openly request owners of dormant domains to point their MX records to the blacklist provider. And when that happens, all the existing email addresses from that specific domain turn into spam traps.

How Many Spam Traps Are Out There?

Hundreds of millions or maybe even more! New spam traps are created 24/7 on all 365 days of a year. For example, Project Honeypot, a spam trap operator, has a constantly updating counter on their website clearly indicating how many spam traps they themselves monitor, and it’s currently at 401 million.

Are Spam Traps Evil?

No! Spam traps are a very valuable component of our email ecosystem as they provide important insight into electronic fingerprints and behaviors of real spammers. The insight gleaned from spam traps is often utilized by the spam filtering technology we all depend upon for a cleaner inbox.

You can think of spam traps like spiders, you clearly recognize their importance, however, you certainly don’t want them popping up in unwanted locations.

Damage Caused by Spam Traps:

The total impact of hitting a spam trap can vary by a lot. It depends on variables like type of spam trap you hit, the total number of times you hit it, and how the spam trap operator handles things at their end. But there are also some positive aspects to consider.

In order of bad to very bad, here’s what can happen if you send email to a spam trap:

  • Your email sender reputation will be damaged, causing your email deliverability to decrease and bounce rates to increase.
  • Your IP addresses may get added to a blacklist database, which means email deliverability for you as well as other email senders (when you use a shared IP) will be affected.
  • When you hit a spam trap operated by leading ISPs like AOL or Yahoo, they could permanently blacklist your sending domain.
  • If you hit a trap operated by an anti-spam organization like SpamCop or Spamhaus, delivery of your emails to all ISPs along with the companies who consult their database will be hugely affected as they use that information to filter incoming emails.

What happens if you hit a Spam Trap?

As an ESP (email service provider) or an email marketer, it’s bad news if you send an email to a spam trap. However, what happens next has a lot to do with the spam trap operator, the number of times you email the same spam traps, the number of their spam traps you hit, and the content of what you emailed.

The possible outcomes include the following:

  • Flag similar emails as spam: The spam trap operator may decide to deliver other emails, which look like yours, to their customers’ spam folders.
  • Block similar emails: Your mail server’s domain or IP may start seeing blocks/delivery rejections from the domain(s) managed by the spam trap operator.
  • Nothing: The spam trap operator may ignore the email completely or maybe just record what you sent in case it happens again.
  • Delete similar emails: In some extreme cases, the spam trap operator may take the decision to protect their user base and unceremoniously delete all incoming emails from your mail server domain or IP.
  • List you: Your domain, your mail server’s IP, or more may appear on a blacklist, and other email operators who watch that list may also take any of these listed actions as well.

Often, the ESPs inform their customers when they send emails to a spam trap. Alternatively, you can utilize any of the services that monitor blacklists or you can also monitor your email marketing results; if you are seeing a decrease in your key performance metrics, it is very likely that you are having an email deliverability problem that may be caused by sending email to a spam trap.

How Marketers Get Spam Traps on Their Email List:

  • Bad data: The vast majority of email lists that are for sales contain spam traps, many of those are a result of web scraping for email addresses off the internet. Hence, the adage “don’t buy a list” is sound advice for those who lack a reputed, trusted data partner. And sometimes unknown to you, the vendor or the source you utilized to help you build your email list is filling your email database with poor quality purchased or scrapped email addresses, including spam traps.
  • Poor list management: Meticulous email marketers send emails to their email list and also carefully and routinely suppress bounces and unsubscribes from their future sends. And failing to follow these best practices may easily result in you sending email to re-purposed spam traps.
  • Bad luck: it’s quite possible that spam traps are registered by pure accident through your regular opt-in process. Some spam trap networks off the typo domains of leading ISPs and can easily end up on your email list just because of sloppy key stroking.
  • Poisoning: competitors or spammers have been known to intentionally register known spam trap email addresses in an effort to get the email marketer land into problems or discredit the spam trap provider.

Living Free of Spam Trap Fears:

Avoiding spam traps is not as hard as one may think. As long as you keep an eye on your engagement rates and follow the best practices, your email hygiene shouldn’t be at risk.

The email marketers who want to live a life free of spam traps should follow the following three principles;

  • Formalize best practices: Don’t buy email lists from unknown sources. Never scrape the internet for email addresses. Scrutinize your data sources and vendors very carefully. and finally, always suppress unsubscribes and hard bounces.
  • Routinely send emails: ensure that you’re actively utilizing all the email addresses on your email list. And if you aren’t sending email to every email address on your email list at least a couple of times in a year, you may easily fail to notice when an email address on your email list goes bad, which could easily be a precursor to it becoming repurposed as a spam trap.
  • Run routine email list hygiene: work with an industry expert like Infotanks Media to help you regularly scrutinize your email list for spam traps and typos. You can easily implement an API at the point of acquisition, do quarterly reviews, or set up for monthly automated monitoring. Trace any issues upstream and fix that acquisition source.

Conclusion:

Sending emails to a spam trap isn’t the end of the world. However, if you send an email to a spam trap than there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to remedy the situation. You have done most of the work already if you just follow the best practices. If not, consider working with an experienced Email Deliverability Consultant. You may also want to consider working with an inbox monitoring service for monitoring your progress easily.

Finally, your goal is to bring back your company’s email deliverability rate to productive and normal, as we all know, email deliverability affects the bottom line of an email marketing program.


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