What’s a Spam Trap?

February 14, 2014 | NGP VAN

In my previous two blog posts I brought up the idea of Spam Traps a few times without actually diving in very much as to what exactly that is. In simplest terms Spam Traps are email addresses used by email service providers and anti-spam services to identify senders with poor data quality practices.If you send to a Spam Trap, you are assumed to have a non-opted in and/or confirmed list, bought email addresses and/or appended data with email addresses, or you have poor list hygiene practices.

They’ve become a nuisance, shutting down numerous email programs and costing them millions of email subscribers when cleaning up the mess they cause. ReturnPath reports that 60% of “all emails received by spam traps are sent from commercial marketers.”

There are two types of Spam Traps:

1. Pristine/Honey Pot/True TrapPristine Spam Traps are the worst of the worst. These are email addresses that have never been used as an active email address. It can only be added to a list by either a misspelling, being scraped from a website, or bought. These traps will likely immediately get your email program shut down, if not, then expect your deliverability to have issues.

2. RecycledThese addresses were once active addresses that were used by individuals. They then became inactive, at which point the addresses become hard bounced and should be removed. After an unknown time period they are then turned into a Spam Trap.

The impact of Spam Traps can vary between email mailbox providers and due to how many and what type of Spam Trap you trigger.   

Impacts can include:

  • Lower your sending reputation which can impact your inbox placement among other things
  • Blacklisting of your domain or IPs you send from
  • Block, throttle or quarantine email you send
  • Your open and clicks will suffer

How are Spam Traps most likely to wind up on your list?

There’s bad practices including purchasing lists, appends or harvesting email from websites. There’s also risky practices such as using affiliate partners, having promotions or limiting website access where entering bad addresses might be input by users, poor bounce processing, stale/old addresses, importing a personal address book, typos, or even attacks.

When it comes to most organizations, Recycled Spam Traps are the more likely of the two you’ll deal with. As your list ages, inevitably, some of those addresses will be changed into a trap. During the period it’s inactive, most email providers will send hard bounce responses back, which we at NGP VAN remove for you. All bounce processing is handled efficiently and quickly by us, conforming with best practices. You don’t have to worry about that at all.

Where political organizations run into the most issues are lists that are imported, swapped or not confirming addresses. Let’s focus on that last one first. There is only one guaranteed way a Spam Trap won’t wind up on an organically built email list, using confirmed opt-in. This is when an email is sent during the sign up process, and unless an individual acts to click a link in that triggered email, they won’t be sent any further email. Spam Traps don’t click links… usually. If you confirm opt-in everyone, no matter how they get on your list, then you probably can be pretty safe when it comes to Spam Traps being added to your list through new supporters being added.

This practice though comes at a cost as email list growth will be slower and a percentage of individuals who want to be added to your list will ignore the opt-in email sent. For those who choose to not go this route, it’s best to pay attention to the statistics of your list growth, watching for the source of user unknown hard bounces, complaints and unsubscribes. If you notice a high volume from certain webpages, hand typed imports, offline list building activities, etc., it’s good to explore that data further and figure out how and why these might be an issue. It’s also best to pay attention to the interaction with your emails from new individuals to your list. After a certain time period from their addition to the list, if they show no interaction, you might want to rethink the content you’re sending to them, how often you’re sending, or even consider removing them sooner from your email blast audience.

As an alternative to a confirmed opt-in email, a welcome series of messages is encouraged. This reminds individuals how they got on your list, and what they can expect, easing them into your email program. Again, with a welcome series, like list growth in general, you can watch these emails’ results and look for hard bounces, complaints, and unsubscribes which is data that should be used to explore the effectiveness of your list acquisition practices.

A possible scenario where a Spam Trap winds up on your list is through swapped or appended lists. Not everyone has good email list hygiene practices. So, when you receive a list from anyone, you’re rolling the dice and trusting their list doesn’t have any issues. They may indeed have some they aren’t even aware of, or ticking time bombs waiting to go off.  Then there’s the issue of suddenly sending to a new trap that you’ve never had a relationship with. It looks bad and can quickly get you busted. At any time your lists aren’t organic or confirmed opt-in, you’re taking a chance.

The final way, and most likely, that you’ll run into issues with recycled traps is due to an aging list as I’ve mentioned. While we at NGP VAN remove your hard bounces, there are chances traps still wind up on your list. That’s why regularly cleaning your list and removing inactive individuals is important. Spam Traps most likely don’t click or open your email (although that’s not always the case) so by removing inactive addresses, you might be killing two birds with one stone by removing Spam Traps as well.

I’d talk about Pristine Spam Traps, but that’s summed up by the golden rule, you should never purchase email lists.  With list purchases, like appends and swaps, you are relying on the source of the data to be following best practices themselves. While it doesn’t always guarantee an issue, the risks you run are high and when problems do arise, they are severe and there’s little you can do as an organization to solve the issue without high penalties enacted by email providers or anti-spam services. It can take months to fix issues that arise through Pristine Traps during which your email program can suffer greatly.

By watching your statistics when it comes to email blasts and regularly maintaining good list hygiene you should steer clear of Spam Traps and enjoy an ease of mind that your email program won’t run into unexpected issues.