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Spam trap email addresses and how to avoid them

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

A spam trap is a working email address, but it’s not used to sign up for newsletters. Since spam trap addresses don't opt-in to receive emails, the only way one could end up in your audience is if you're not maintaining a healthy list of contacts, or you're not abiding by the rules of permission-based email marketing.

If a spam trap address ends up in your audience, and you send to that contact, it's called "hitting a spam trap".

Types of spam traps

You can hit a spam trap without knowingly doing anything wrong. This is because of the different ways that spam traps are created.

Pure spam traps

These are email addresses that have never been used by anyone: they've never been opted into a mailing list, used to sign up for an account, or handed out on a business card.

The only way this sort of spam trap could possibly end in your audience is if they were obtained without permission.

Pure spam traps are set up with the sole intention of luring in spammers, which is done by leaving them out as bait. The address is placed on the Internet where people or robots harvesting email addresses illegitimately will find them.

When email addresses are collected this way they're often usually shared with other spammers or added to bulk mailing lists that get sold to people who may not understand the consequences of emailing people without permission.

Recycled email addresses

This is the kind of trap you could hit even if every email address in your audience was obtained with permission. But they're still bad news because sending to these addresses can make you look like a spammer.

Recycled spam traps are very old email addresses that are no longer in use by the original owner. The address has been abandoned for so long the provider has repurposed it as a trap to expose, and block emails from, senders who are not responsibly managing their email marketing program.

Hitting a recycled spam trap indicates that you are not keeping your audience up to date, which means regularly removing contacts who have not opted in and managing bounced emails.

Invalid email addresses

If someone subscribes using an email address that contains a typo, or they submit a deliberately fake email address — for example, when someone is required to supply an email address but they don't want to be emailed — you run the risk of it being a spam trap email address, just out of pure coincidence.

Typos

For example, email addresses with a typo in the domain, such as @gnail instead of @gmail. Typos on the domain side of the address, after the @, are the most common spam traps, but you can also strike one with a misspelled username — the bit before the @.

Username typos can happen when email addresses are collected offline and later have to be entered into a database, or it be entered incorrectly when a customer is spelling it out over the phone.

Fake addresses

Website registration and shopping cart forms commonly attract fake emails. If you've ever had to hand over your email address in exchange for a "free whitepaper" you can appreciate how this happens. For example, someone submits an address like donotmailme@please.com which might just happen to be a spam trap address.

Avoid invalid email addresses by sending only to contacts who have confirmed opt-in. By sending exclusively to contacts who verify their address, you can ensure your not sending to an invalid address that, at best, will bounce, and at worst is a spam trap.

The damage they cause

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

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

  • Your sender reputation will be damaged, causing bounce rates to increase and your deliverability (the percentage of emails that make it to the inbox) to decrease.

  • Our IP addresses may be added to a blacklist database, which means deliverability for you as well as other customers will be affected.

  • If you hit a spam trap operated by one of the major ISPs, such as Yahoo or AOL, they could permanently blacklist your sending domain.

  • If you hit a trap operated by an anti-spam organization, for example, Spamhaus or SpamCop, delivery of your emails to all ISPs — as well as companies who consult their databases — will be affected because they use that information to filter incoming emails.

What happens if you hit a spam trap

If spam traps are found in your audience our compliance team will contact you by email. Regardless of the severity of the case, sending will be suspended until we help you resolve the issue.

If you're reading this because we have contacted you about a spam trap alert, rest assured, our aim is to help you fix the problem as soon as possible. We understand that hitting a trap can come as a shock. It's not always immediately clear how it happened, and even well intentioned email marketers can get caught out.

The review and recovery process will involve:

  • Identifying all the ways contact data has been collected and added to your audience. If for any reason, third party or purchased email addresses have been added to your audience, they must be removed immediately.

  • Reviewing the age of your contact's email addresses. We need to find out how old your database is and how regularly, or irregularly, they have been sent bulk commercial emails.

  • Segmenting your audience based on recent recipient activity. Identifying who received but did not open the mailing caught by the spam trap and re-engage them with an opt-in confirmation mailing. Those who do not confirm should be removed from your audience.

  • Requesting the removal or re-confirmation of contacts who have not opened a mailing within the last 18 months or longer.

This process can take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks to resolve. We understand it can all sound quite daunting, but so long as you're willing to work with us, there is no need to worry.

Going through damage control in response to hitting any kind of spam trap is actually a great opportunity to review and improve your sending and audience management practices with the help of our expert compliance team.

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