Mind The Spam Trap!

Artboard 1@2x

Email providers work in mysterious ways to catch those pesky spammers and stop them from reaching our inboxes. But sometimes, even a well-intentioned email marketer can fall into a trap and harm their sender reputation.

I’m going to walk you through the different types of spam traps that email providers are using today. And give you some pointers on how best to avoid them!

So, what are spam traps?

Spam traps are email addresses that have been abandoned or never belonged to anyone in the first place. They’re not read by a real human being, but they look just like any other legitimate email address so they tend to be quite difficult to spot.

Pristine Spam Traps

These are email addresses that look like any other email address, with one dark secret - they don’t belong to anyone at all.

Also known as honeypots, those slightly sinister sounding pristine spam traps are a sneaky but effective way for email providers to catch spammers red-handed. Should you inadvertently send an email to one of these addresses, you can expect to find yourself blacklisted before you can say, “Emails for sale!”

The best way to avoid these is to ensure that you only ever use opted-in email addresses that people are entering when they sign up to your list. Avoid adding random email addresses from the internet to your mailing list - you don’t know where they’ve been. And never, ever buy an email list- it’s almost guaranteed that some of those spam traps will be in there.

Recycled Spam Traps

The second type of spam trap is a recycled spam trap.

Let’s suppose that someone closes their email account down one day, and the next day you send that person an email. That email is going to bounce and you’ll get a notification saying this email no longer works. Ideally at this point, you should stop sending emails to that person.

Email marketing platforms such as Infusionsoft, MailChimp and ActiveCampaign will take this into account, automatically unsubscribing that email address from your list, so that there’s no risk of you sending something to them again.

But there’s a catch!

After 3-6 months, that email address will get re-enabled.

So let’s suppose you’ve gone dark on your mailing list, and not sent them anything for more than six months. You’ve missed the chance to remove the expired email address from your list, and that same address is back in circulation as a spam trap. So you send that “hey, I’m back” email to your list, including the newly-activated spam trap. Lo and behold, now they’ve caught you out as one of the people who aren’t looking after their mailing list very well.

It’s not quite the same kind of capital crime as sending an email to a pristine spam trap might be, but it still gets you caught out for being one of the guys who hasn’t got some great email practices, and again, you risk harming your sender reputation.

Invalid Email Addresses and Typos

Nobody is perfect and humans make mistakes. When someone provides their email, there is always a risk of typos. Look out for zoe@gmial.com or ralph@yachoo.co.uk. They are likely genuine typing errors, and will most likely just bounce if you email them. Although in some cases, organisations have set up “typo spam traps” to catch people who repeatedly send emails to addresses that will never, ever open anything that gets sent to them.

Sometimes a person may want access to something you’re offering, but don’t want to receive email from you. In this case, they might give you a fake email address. Again, this might just bounce, but there is a small risk that they may inadvertently provide you with a spam trap email.

It’s fairly easy to avoid invalid email addresses and typos creeping into your mailing list, by simply sending new subscribers a confirmation email asking them to confirm that their email address is valid by clicking a link in the email.

How to stay safe

Now, the good news is that there are ways of avoiding spam traps because there’s various tools available that do what’s known as list scrubbing. They will actually look at your email database, and they will tell you which email addresses are bad email addresses. So a way of protecting your reputation is to scrub your email list, ideally, every three months, definitely every 12 months to make sure there are no spam traps or other nasty email addresses lurking in there.

If you use a good email scrubbing tool, such as Klean13, then that will identify things like spam traps, invalid email addresses, typos. It also tells you all the sales@ and info@ and other “role-based” email accounts that you shouldn’t really send marketing emails to. They’ve even got a database of serial complainers. Sometimes someone opts into your list, they download a few freebies and then opt out reporting for spam a few days later. There are some people that do that habitually. The list scrubbing services will even warn you of that kind of person, so you can decide if you want to keep mailing them or not.

Minimising Spam Traps by Managing Engagement

Even if you don’t scrub your list, you can identify most spam traps by managing your engagement very carefully.

If a newly-added contact hasn’t opened anything you’ve sent within the first 7-14 days, the chances are that you’re either hitting their spam folder from the get-go, they’ve mistyped their email address, or that someone has entered the address of a spam trap onto your list. So it’s worth automatically sending a “click here to stay on my list” email to any newly-added contacts that haven’t engaged within those crucial first 7-14 days and removing them if they don’t click the link.

Similarly, if a contact that’s been on your list for a while goes a whole three months without opening anything, it’s a sign that they’ve either lost interest in your content, maybe your emails have started going to their spam folder, or in extreme cases, their email address has been converted into a spam trap. Again, the solution is the same - you can automatically send them a “click here to stay on my list” email when they reach three months without engaging, and remove them if they don’t click the link.

Our Deliverability Defender software makes it incredibly easy to automate your engagement management - click here to find out more.


5 thoughts on “Mind The Spam Trap!”

  1. The problem I have with “open” notifications is the fact that lots of people, including myself have tracking turned off so people can’t tell if I’ve read the email or not. So, I don’t trust open rates on my mailing software.

  2. Hey Jason, open rates are definitely not 100% accurate and until recently the general advice was to all but ignore them for anything other than tracking of larger statistical trends. However opening an email is an important engagement metric for the big email providers, so unfortunately as imperfect as tracking opens is, we have to take them into account a lot more now.

    This is why it’s important to give new and existing contacts a reason to click on something in your email, it adds an extra engagement hit for the provider, but more importantly for us it’s a much more robust way to know that an email was actually opened and (hopefully) read.

  3. Adrian, how do list scrubbing services identify spam trap email addresses? I mean, how do they have any clue it’s a spam trap??


  4. Adrian Savage

    Hey Ed, sorry I didn’t reply to this sooner. They use lots of proprietary algorithms and heuristics that they won’t share for commercial reasons. If it was me, I’d track domains where the MX record changes from a “commonly known” server to something else – possibly one that’s already associated with one of the spam tracking organisations; I’d also track email bounces and consider them as potential spam traps when those addresses got re-enabled, as there’s a very high chance that the address will have been turned into a recycled spam trap. I’m sure there are many other ways as well but those are simple examples.

Leave a Comment