Understand Spam Traps - What They Are And How To Avoid Them

Written by

Michael Benson

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As more businesses turn to email marketing as a primary outreach technique, the number of emails landing in the average person's inbox has significantly increased. Several studies show that each email account owner receives over 120 emails daily. If left unchecked, these figures could soar to well over 500 emails/day in the near future.

Who wants to receive over 200 emails from unknown people daily? Yeah, you guessed right — nobody. Because of this, email service providers have invested in several techniques to safeguard their customers from unwanted emails. One of these is deploying spam trap emails.

So, what is a spam trap email? What are the most common email spam trap types? And most importantly — how can you spot and prevent them from entering your email lists? Our specialists offer detailed answers to these and several other related questions in this comprehensive guide. 

Master spam traps: Learn their nature and evade trouble effectively.

What Are Spam Traps?

A spam trap account is an email address an internet service provider (ISP) or blocklist operator uses to identify senders relying on purchased, harvested, or outdated email lists. They are typically inactive email addresses ISPs create to catch organizations that don't follow email best practices. Sometimes, they include addresses that were once active but are no longer valid or used.

For example, suppose your business assigns work emails to your employees. When one of these employees leaves, it's best practice to remove them from your email lists. Otherwise, their email addresses may become invalid over time, prompting your ISP to use them as spam traps.

You're not a spammer. Why should you care? Unfortunately, you can still have spam traps on your email lists, even if you have good intentions. Nobody is safe, regardless of your organization's size or industry.

Why are email spam traps such a concerning issue for marketers? Well, simply because they can significantly derail your outreach initiatives. Here's how:

  • Tainting your sender reputation: Sending emails to spam trap addresses can show ISPs you don't follow email best practices, damaging your reputation with the ISP. The lower your reputation, the more you will likely have deferral or failed delivery issues.

  • Poor email deliverability: One crucial factor ISPs use to decide whether to deliver your emails is the level of engagement and positive recipient interactions your emails generate. When you send emails to spam trap addresses, most will return blocked, invalid addresses or marked as spam responses. This will affect your email open, response, and deliverability rates in the long run.

  • Blacklisting: Consistently sending emails to spam trap addresses shows email service providers you have poor email list hygiene. Initially, you may get away with a light warning. However, the ISP can blocklist your IP address if you do this repeatedly. Again, this will affect your delivery rates.

  • Low open and click rates: Open and click rates are among the key performance indicators of email marketing campaigns. You won't get opens or clicks when you target invalid spam trap addresses. 

As a result, you'll end up with skewed engagement metrics, making monitoring your campaign's performance challenging. Sometimes, you might beat yourself, thinking the problem is your strategy when the actual issue is spam traps in your email lists.

  • Increased filtering by ISPs: As stated in the introduction, ISPs continually seek ways to protect their customers from unwanted emails. When you send emails to spam trap addresses, it shows you didn't research your target audience or create customized email lists. In other words, you are a spammer broadcasting emails to all and sundry, hoping that the wide net will at least catch some fish.

  • Legal consequences: Different jurisdictions have varying laws on cold emailing. For example, Canada has a very robust data protection regulation — the Canada Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL). This law prohibits companies from emailing individuals or organizations unless they have given them express or implied consent. 

Suppose a disgruntled recipient in Canada were to take you to court over spamming them. They can use your history of sending emails to spam trap addresses to make a case against your organization, exposing you to costly lawsuits and reputational damage.

Types Of Spam Traps 

Now that you understand how spam or junk trap email addresses operate, let's delve into some common types.

Pristine Addresses

Some call these email spam trap types the silent guardians. Others refer to them as pristine honey pots. Regardless of your preferred name, these are the most common types of spam traps.

Pristine spam traps are email accounts ISPs specifically create to catch spammers in the act. Unlike other types of email traps, pristine spam traps are invalid because nobody has ever used them for legitimate communication. 

Email service providers and spam-blocking services place these email addresses strategically on websites, forums, or other online platforms where spam bots and scrapers are likely to harvest them. Therefore, when you send an email to a pristine spam trap, it is a clear indicator that you have bought or harvested your email list.

Recycled Addresses

As the name suggests, recycled spam traps are email addresses that were once valid and had active, legitimate users who have since abandoned them. When these accounts become inactive for a long time, email service providers can repurpose them as traps to identify senders who continue to send emails to outdated or inactive lists. 

The rationale behind recycled spam traps is to target organizations and marketers who neglect proper list hygiene, sending messages to no longer valid addresses. By doing so, ISPs can pinpoint potential spammers and take appropriate measures to safeguard their users from unwanted content.

Typo Trap: Exploiting Common Mistakes

As the name suggests, the typo trap preys on common typographical errors senders or spammers usually make. The only difference is that, in this case, the trap phishing comes from an ISP or spam-blocking company.

Here's how it works.

Are you familiar with how malicious actors deploy trap phishing scams? Well, they typically create email addresses with intentional misspellings or slight variations of popular domains to dupe unsuspecting recipients. 

For example, if your bank's email address is mybank@emailaddress.com, they can create a fake account using “mybannk@emailaddress.com.” Because of your history with the bank, you might not bother to confirm if the email address is valid, exposing you to data breaches.

Typo traps use the same technique to catch senders who deploy email campaigns without keenly verifying their recipient lists. For instance, an ISP might create an email address like "admin@yahhoo.com" to capture those who mistakenly type "yahoo" with an extra "h." 

This type of spam trap not only helps identify careless senders but also acts as a deterrent against hasty and unscrupulous email marketing practices. The assumption is if you regularly clean your email list, you'd catch such invalid addresses.  

Seeds (Nurturing the Garden of Anti-Spam Measures)

Seeds, also known as seed addresses, are legitimate email addresses ISPs provide to reputable email marketers for testing and monitoring purposes. Email service providers often intentionally include them in mailing lists to monitor the sender's behavior and track the email's delivery and content. 

Any email sent to seed addresses is scrutinized to ensure compliance with anti-spam regulations and to identify potential issues before the campaign reaches the wider audience. Seeds play a crucial role in maintaining the integrity of email marketing and help marketers fine-tune their strategies to avoid triggering spam filters.

If well-used, they can help you identify and avoid potential spam triggers. And the opposite is true.

Mole Spam Traps: Infiltrating the Spammer's Lair

The last type of spam email trap is the mole trap. They involve a covert strategy where anti-spam organizations create seemingly legitimate accounts to infiltrate the spammers' networks. 

These trap accounts actively subscribe to mailing lists and engage with spammers, collecting valuable information about their tactics and identifying potential threats. 

Mole spam traps play a proactive role in helping ISPs stay one step ahead of spammers by gathering intelligence that email service providers can use to enhance anti-spam measures and protect users from evolving spam techniques.

How Do I Prevent A Spam Trap From Entering My List?

The best way to prevent spam traps from entering your email lists is by observing emailing best practices. That's because all the ways spam trap addresses can end up in your lists narrow down to one root — poor email list management. With that in mind, below are a few ways to help you avoid falling prey to spam traps:

Use Double Opt-In Addresses

What does your email onboarding process look like? For some marketers, it simply entails collecting email addresses and going straight into cold pitches. This approach often leads to emailing uninterested recipients and spam traps.

The solution is to deploy a double opt-in strategy. When a user subscribes to your email marketing list, send them a follow-up email asking them to confirm the sign-up. Or, better still, you can send them a link to verify or discontinue the subscription. Next, filter out the unsubscribers and non-responding addressees.

Why is this crucial? First, most spam traps (except mole traps, which are rare) cannot opt into an email list. They're either invalid or inactive. As a result, any bots that subscribe to your channel will not make it to the final list. The other benefit of double opt-in is that you'll only target recipients with a proven interest in your marketing messages. 

Besides increasing your open and response rates, it can also enhance your sender reputation.

You might wonder — what about those who aren't interested? Won't I be shooting myself in the leg by asking them to unsubscribe? No. If they want to leave, let them go. There's no need to spam them with thousands of email copies hoping to pique their interest. You'll be flogging a dead horse. 

Implementing a double opt-in strategy will help you create a healthy, active email list with more qualified leads. It will enable you to identify and eliminate dead horses (spam traps and unqualified leads), giving you more time to focus on the right people.

Avoid Purchasing Email Lists

We understand how challenging it can be to create organic email lists from scratch. Usually, it involves running sign-up campaigns, sending several follow-up emails, offering incentives, tens or hundreds of correspondences, and the list is endless. This can be time-consuming and utterly exhausting, even for experienced email marketers with several automation tools. 

If you're new to the email marketing business, there may be better uses of your time than the bark and forth. I mean, why send hundreds of emails just to get potential clients when you can purchase lists and focus on creating killer copies? 

We understand the allure of buying email lists. However, purchased lists are less qualified than those you create organically. Also, they have a high chance of containing spam traps. And reasonably so — their creators are usually more concerned about filling the lists than generating feedback or conversions.

Besides the potential of having spam traps, purchased email lists can also expose you to hefty suits. Several countries consider this practice illegal. For instance, CAN-SPAM and CASL prohibit marketers from buying or selling bulk email lists. They demand organizations to request permission from cold email recipients, such as through double opt-in strategies. This permission is not transferable.

Remove Inactive Users From Your List

When you're still learning the ropes of cold emailing, you might think the wider the net, the more fish you'll likely catch. Unfortunately, that's not true. It's not about the size of your net. Instead, your catch significantly depends on where you place the net.

What do we mean by this analogy?

Targeting a few qualified leads is better than a thousand disinterested recipients. Occasionally monitor your campaigns' performances to identify and remove inactive users. The chances are they are spam traps from your ISP.

How Do I Know If There's A Spam Trap In My List?

When you first hear spam traps, they sound like spooky giggling ghosts with rubber chickens. On the contrary, they are the exact opposite — they look like regular email addresses, making it almost impossible to distinguish them from valid accounts. If you're keen on details, you can have them in your email lists for years without noticing. They don't scream. They bite and blow.

If you suspect you have spam traps in your lists, below are a few telltale signs to look out for:

Low Engagement

Analyzing your engagement metrics is one of the most effective ways to identify spam traps. Spam traps are often characterized by their lack of engagement, as they don’t have real individuals actively monitoring or using them. Keep a close eye on the following metrics:

  • Open rates:  How many recipients open your emails? A standard open rate should be over 20% of the total recipient. If your current rate is way lower than this, check your list for potential spam traps.
  • Click-through rates: You can also identify spam traps by monitoring the number of people clicking the images, hyperlinks, or CTAs in your links. A low CTA, below your industry's average, means unresponsive subscribers — which might be because they're spam traps.
  • Response rates: Most industries have an average email open rate of 15% to 25%. If you've been recording consistently low response rates from your email campaigns, the chances are that they are invalid addresses or spam trap emails.

Generally, if you notice a segment of your email list showing consistently low or zero engagement, it could indicate the presence of spam traps. Isolate and target them with opt-out messages, asking them to unsubscribe if your offers don't suit them. Remove them from your list if they still don't respond after asking them to opt-out. They might be spam trap emails. Even if they're not, their unresponsiveness can dent your sender reputation, lower your campaigns' performance, and give you a false impression of your strategies' effectiveness.

High Bounce Rates

Email bounce rate is a performance metric marketers use to monitor the percentage of emails that fail to reach recipients' inboxes. A high bounce rate means fewer emails were successfully delivered, and vice versa.

Not all bounces may result from spam traps. There are two types of email bounces:

  • Soft bounces: Sometimes, emails might have temporary delays in delivery times, resulting in soft bounces. Such delays often arise because of full mailboxes, busy recipient servers, exceeded message size, or downtime in email servers. In most cases, the sending server will initiate a resending procedure automatically once it has resolved the issue causing the delay.

  • Hard bounces: Unlike soft bounces, hard bounces are permanent. They often occur due to invalid email addresses. 

While soft bounces occur regularly, hard bounces could mean a problem in your email lists. Remove that address from your list immediately whenever you receive an "Invalid email address" error code. 

Use Spam Trap Checkers

If you've tried the above methods but still think you have other spam traps in your list, try a spam trap checker. These tools analyze and validate emails based on their DNS records. They can be handy for B2B companies running campaigns targeting organizations that take SPF, DMARC, and DKIM registration seriously. 

If some email addresses on your list lack DNS validation, confirm their authenticity by isolating and messaging them individually. If you notice any red flags like no responses, delete them from the list. 

Deliberate Misspellings

If you have a small email list, you can identify unresponsive addresses and check them for spelling issues. You're likely dealing with a spam trap if you notice spelling errors on the domain or user credentials. If you have a large email, use email validation tools.

High Email Complaints

Pay attention to the feedback loop from internet service providers (ISPs). A high volume of email complaints, where recipients mark your emails as spam, can indicate issues with your list quality. Spam traps are more likely to be present in lists that generate numerous complaints. Implement mechanisms to address subscriber concerns promptly and use feedback to improve the relevance and quality of your email content. 

An Organic Email List Is The Way Out

The best way to remove spam traps from your email list is by creating them organically. Actually, there's no other way.

Avoid shortcuts like harvesting or buying email lists. They might seem like time-savers when you look at them superficially. However, they'll cost you more in the long run than you'd have spent on starting from scratch. Besides the possibility of having spam traps, bought or harvested email lists often have low conversion rates. They're less qualified and, therefore, likely to generate fewer engagements.

The choice is yours. You can either take the shortcut and risk spam traps in your email lists or go the slow but sure, organic way. Any sane marketer would go with the latter.

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