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How Do Spam Traps Work? Tips for Avoiding Your Worst Marketing Nightmare

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by: Brad Mimbs (@IBMforMarketing)
03 October 2013

Do you ever wonder how an IP address gets added to a blacklist? Or why your mailings were delivered fine yesterday, but rejected by an ISP today? More than likely, these issues arose because you sent messages to too many inactive recipients — and buried inside those inactive addresses are spam traps. Nothing can bring down the positive reputation of an IP address faster than sending to spam traps.

What Are Spam Traps?

Spam traps are email addresses that don’t belong to real recipients. A spam trap either never belonged to a real recipient, or did but was closed and rejected with a hard bounce error code stating the email address was bad or inactive for a significant period before being repurposed into a spam trap. They are used by ISPs and blacklists to track email spammers.

Spam traps fail into two separate types: recycled email addresses, and email addresses that never existed (honeypots). Let’s take a look at some of the similarities and differences between the two.

Recycled Email Address Spam Traps

Recycled email addresses are email addresses that at one point were active and being used. After a certain time period of inactivity, the ISP or domain will start sending you hard bounce error codes if you send to a perpetually dormant email address. Marketers should then add those addresses to their suppression lists as invalid addresses — and here’s why.

After a few months or even years of inactivity, these email addresses will be turned back on and monitored to see if new mailings are being sent to these addresses. Since these email addresses shouldn’t be receiving mailings, marketers who didn’t suppress these addresses or have started resending to older lists will be dinged for sending to these types of spam traps.

Honeypot Spam Traps

Honeypots are set up specifically by ISPs to look for spammers. Since there’s no legitimate way that a honeypot spam trap email address could have been used to sign up for a list, sending to honeypots is looked upon as really bad and can cause serious deliverability issues.

So, how do companies come into possession of these “fake” email addresses? Typically, the spam traps wind up in marketers’ lists and databases when senders either purchase email lists from a third party or “harvest” lists, using software to spider Web pages and other sources for email addresses. Both tactics fall short of industry opt-in best practices, and they can also lead to CAN-SPAM issues.

Avoiding Spam Traps

The impact of spam trap hits can vary, depending on what kind of spam traps you hit and how many you hit. Your mailings might just go into the junk folder. Or, if it’s a bad enough case, your IP could be listed at a major blacklist like Spamhaus, which would then cause upwards of 80 percent of your mailings to be blocked. Spamhaus listings are not pleasant, and it will not delist IPs until the sender agrees to a certain set of stipulations.

You can avoid all spam traps by using best practices to build your database and sending to active members of your list. Active recipients are typically defined as contacts that have opened or clicked on a link in an email, signed up at the website or purchased something within the last nine months.

Recipients who don’t click or open an email after six months generally don’t ever become active again. These inactive recipients also file more abuse complaints and could potentially become spam traps in the future. You don’t want a small portion of your list impacting the entire database, so consider moving these inactives into a special “reactivation” messaging track designed to try to re-engage them once last time. Better yet, move inactive subscribers into an “activation” track automatically after two to three months of inactivity.

Related Resources:

1) White Paper: “Gmail Tabs: Impact on Email Marketing and Strategies to Respond

2) Blog: “What Factors Can Impact Email Message Delivery Time?

3) Blog: “Email Authentication: How SPF, DKIM and DMARC Separate the Wannabes from the Real Stuff


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