Everything you need to know about spam trapsIt’s a post-GDPR world.  The data apocalypse has barely been survived. Email lists have been incinerated.  Now, we imagine the streets and cyber-highways teeming with militant police, just waiting for one of us to slip up.  And, your worst nightmare happens.  There’s a spam trap in your email contact list.  You need to know where it came from.  What if someone accuses you of spamming?  Will the data-swat team come crashing through the walls?

OK, OK.  Enough with the melodrama.

Firstly, finding a spam trap in your contact list is not necessarily suggestive of foul play.  Although, it definitely signifies that your data is in serious need of cleaning.

Every email marketer has come across the term “spam trap” before.  Not every email marketer is entirely sure what one is.  Most will proclaim adamantly that they have no idea where it came from in the first place.

Some are telling the truth.  Some aren’t.

Considering how detrimental a spam trap can be to your email marketing efforts, it is worth making sure you know what you are dealing with.  Whether you are new to email marketing (and imagined that it was a hole used to catch processed meat) or an email marketing veteran – understanding spam traps is important.

What is a spam trap?

The concept of a spam trap is rather simple.  In essence, it is an email address that has been set up to ensnare marketers who are sending spam.  It is a simple enough definition.

Whereas a typo is most likely a combination of human error and a poorly managed opt-in process, a spam trap is deliberately employed to catch those marketers who are purchasing lists or scraping data from the internet.  These email addresses aren’t owned by a single person, in fact, most are owned by the inbox providers.

There are various ways of getting caught being naughty with email, and really you need to know about two main types of spam trap.

  • Pristine/pure spam trap: An email address created by an ISP for the sole purpose of hunting spammers.  These aren’t ever used for anything else.
  • Recycled spam trap: An email address that was once owned and abandoned by their owners.  Outlook for instance, will automatically close your account after one year of inactivity.

Once deactivated, these email address could be used by the hosting company to catch spammers.

How are they used?

Spam traps are used in various sneaky-ninja-esque ways across the internet.  For instance, the spam traps will be posted on the internet, somewhere a casual user wouldn’t likely be looking.  You are more likely to hit the pristine traps this way.  Recycled spam traps generally show up in purchased data.  Either way, organisations such as Google and Microsoft, simply have to wait for emails to hit the inbox.

If you are emailing a pristine spam trap, then they know that you are spamming.  There is no way that this could have found its way onto your email marketing list without some shady shenanigans going on.  This data was not found organically.

As you can imagine, a recycled trap doesn’t necessarily signify that anyone has been particularly mischievous.  More often, the recycled trap catches out the lazy email marketer, or the careless one.  They simply aren’t maintaining their list.

Despite some software, such as mailingmanager, making sure that the bounces created by deactivated emails are not being emailed again, users of such software may not be as careful.  Even if the email is deleted from the list, it is often imported back into the system as a fresh email address.  If this spam trap is hit again, then the ESPs are aware that a user is not maintaining their subscriber list very well.

If you think about it, not performing basic maintenance on your customer list is a pretty stupid thing to get blacklisted for.  It’s email marketing 101.

You need to know the consequences.

Needless to say, the ESP cares more about its customers than those who are trying to send them marketing emails.  They operate in a highly competitive industry, and wish to provide the best possible service.  This includes thwarting spam before it enters the inbox.  So if you are caught dancing around in the inboxes of their spam traps, you are heading towards a blacklisting.

Being blacklisted will negatively effect your deliverability.  If you get through the spam filters, it might only be so you can sit collecting dust at the bottom of their junk mailbox.  Hit a spam trap, and your reputation could be significantly affected.

You also need to know, that one spam trap is literally as damaging as having fifty of them peppered throughout your contact list.  The owner of the spam trap doesn’t know you.  They don’t know that you have 150,000 excellent contacts.

You might be able to convince the ESP to take you off of their blacklist, however this is not an easy and quick process.  In the meantime, your emails are going to just keep landing in junk.

How to avoid spam traps

As seemingly easy as it is to hit a spam trap, or add a typo’d email address to your contact list, it is just as easy to avoid having them in your list at all.  A few basic steps and frequent maintenance should keep your contact list free of spam traps:

  • Don’t purchase data: I know it sounds like I am teaching grandma to suck eggs, but it still happens.
  • Use double opt-in: It doesn’t take long to set up a double opt in process.  Before an email lands in your list, the double opt-in process tests whether or not the email is genuine.
  • Manage your inactive subscribers: Despite what email marketing software you are using, it is best to keep on top of your list hygiene.  There are various ways to do this, whether it be through a list cleaning company or carefully using the analytics to find out how your emails are behaving.

Wrapping up

In comparison to some of my other articles, this “everything you need to know” article is relatively short.  That should tell you something about the nature of spam traps.  It is important enough for us to write an email marketing article about, but easy enough to understand so that it can be described in a comparatively small space.

If you have been having trouble with spam traps, or maintaining your lists, please comment below so that others can learn invaluable lessons from your experiences.