What Are Spam Traps & How to Identify and Avoid Them?

Spam traps or honeypots are the greatest roadblocks to a perfect sender reputation. They can be easily avoided. Read all about it here!

Published on: March 9, 2020 |


As per the Deliverability Benchmark Report, nearly 20% of the emails you send to your subscribers fail to make it to their inbox. This fact highlights that no matter how hard you work on your subject line and the email content, one out of five individuals may not even receive it in the first place! This deliverability dip can be attributed to spam traps, also known as honey pots.


What is a Spam Trap? How Does it Affect You?

Organizations like ‘Anti-Spam Companies, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), Security Companies, and Blacklist Providers make use of spam traps to identify and block spammers. A Spam Trap Email is a valid, deliverable email address that is impossible to differentiate from regular emails but is not actively used. As a result, these spam trap emails are actively monitored for any incoming messages. Thus, in the event that it doesreceive an email, it is a clear indication that the sender is a spammer because the said email ID never signed up in the mailing list!

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “Spam” as – unsolicited, usually commercial, messages (such as emails, text messages, or internet postings) sent to a large number of recipients or posted in a large number of places.

The keyword in this definition that stands out is ‘unsolicited.’

So, now you may wonder, ‘If I am a legitimate sender with a valid sender’s list, why should I bother, right?

Unfortunately, while spam traps are effective in locating spam through the permission-based system, they also flag senders who do not maintain a healthy list or failed on the data hygiene front. Just as much as they are capable of catching the bad guys, they could also get you on their spam trap list simply because of the lack of compliance with the best practices!

Therefore, even though you are not a spammer, you may end up on a spam trap list, which will adversely affect your sending reputation and email deliverability.

Types of Spam Trap

Spam Traps can be broadly classified as ‘Pristine‘ or ‘Recycle Spam Traps.’ These types can be further divided into different categories. Here is a basic overview of the different types of spam trap:

1. Pristine Spam Trap

Pristine or ‘PureSpam Traps‘are valid email addresses that cannot opt-in to receive emails. Hence, they are primarily set up to attract spammers. These email addresses are published publicly across the internet but are placed within the website’s code to identify email marketers who may scrape websites or purchase mailing lists to reach out to their audiences.

They could be of the following types:

a. Real Person with a Fake Address

Companies may set up fake email IDs corresponding to various key officials to lure in the spammers. While the company’s official website publishes the valid, official email addresses of these individuals, the variants of these email addresses are planted as honey pots throughout public channels by embedding them in the website code. Thus, web scrapers will most likely fall for these spam trap email addresses.

b. Fake Person with a Real Address

This technique is rather broad and not entirely reliable, but it lays upon the foundation of flagging senders on the basis of their cold pitches. Companies may create fake profiles of non-existing employees and use their email address as a spam trap email. The logic behind this states that the sender is emailing someone who they don’t know, which would mean that they’re spammers. However, there may be legitimate reasons for senders to mail the said profile, which points to the fallacy of this logic.

2. Recycled Spam Trap

Recycle spam trap or grey spam traps were once valid emails that had opted-in to your mailing list. However, these email addresses are now abandoned and but have been re-purposed by blacklist providers or ISPs to act as honeypots. Similarly, companies may reactivate an old employee’s email address and use it to identify spammers.

Hence, if you do not periodically clean your mailing list or have purchased an outdated email list from a third-party vendor, you are more likely to fall into this type of spam trap. The emails that you send to such expired emails may have hard bounced at some point, and not acting upon this has been hurting your sender’s reputation.

3. Miscellaneous Spam Traps

A few other types of spam traps include:

a. Email Address with Typos

There is a possibility of a subscriber to misspell their email address (Hey! We’re all human after all!). Conversely, you may introduce such typographical errors while importing the list from a paper-pen format to a digital format.

Unfortunately, when you send emails to these misspelled and mistyped email addresses, you may not encounter any bounce. In fact, ISPs set up spam traps within the entire domain to check for negligence on the part of a sender. So, every email that is sent to “***” in place of “***” is actually spam!

While the repercussions of these spam trap emails are not as grave as mailing to a pristine spam trap, they may highlight your failure to abide by the best practices and harm your reputation.

b. Purchased Mailing List

Purchasing a mailing list is the most self-sabotaging move for email marketing. A purchased mailing list will be riddled with harvested, scraped, and seeded email IDs. Technically, these email addresses are different in each regard, but they qualify as spam traps. Further, since a few other email addresses have not opted-in to your mailing list, your emails even to valid addresses count as spam messages.

How to Check if You Have a Spam Trap on Your List

The best litmus test on knowing whether you have spam traps on your listis to closely monitor your delivery rates. If you notice your deliverability tanking, there is a strong possibility that it is due to a spam trap. However, different types of spam traps can have varying effects. Further, it also depends on the number of times you have hit the spam trap and how it has been handled by the operator. In the increasing order of gravity, some of the adverse effects include:

  • Spam traps can damage your sender reputation, which will result in higher bounce rates and lower deliverability.
  • They can cause your IP address to feature in the blacklist database, which decreases not only your deliverability but also the deliverability of other customers sharing that IP.
  • Certain spam traps of reputed ISPs like AOL, Yahoo, etc. could result in the permanent blacklisting of your domain.
  • Spam traps operated by major anti-spam companies like Spamhaus and SpamCop can cause a hit to your deliverability across all ISPs and every other organization that avails their services.

If you register any of the above symptoms, your first line of action should be to put a halt on the sending activities and conduct a diagnostic on your entire mailing list!

You may be thinking, “Is a single spam trap email out of the 4-5 million addresses on mailing list worth putting a stop on sending?”

The answer is YES!

While you may be sending emails to a single spam trap email address or several ones, you may still be flagged simply because it indicates a problem in your mailing and list-collection practices. Further, the organization operating the spam trap does not know the intensity or severity of spam trap engagement, and one is enough to tip them off.

The first step would be to scrub out the email addresses that have not engaged for about 3 to 6 months. Then, you can segment the lists and clean them manually. However, do bear in mind that considering that spam trap emails look like any other regular email address, it is hard to differentiate it from genuine contacts. Thus, to save time and money (remember, your sending is on pause until you have cleaned your mailing list), you can make use of tools, first to evaluate your sending reputation, and then for locating and eliminating the spam traps added to your mailing list.

Further, make it a point to repeat this activity every six months. Cleaning your mailing list periodically is a good practice, regardless of the fact whether you have hit a spam trap or otherwise.

READ NOW: The Impact of Bad Data on Sales & Marketing and How to Fix it

Steps to Prevent Spam Traps

In a nutshell, spam traps help detect senders who follow irresponsible list-building techniques. Thus, even if you have cleaned your mailing list a couple of times, you may still notice spam traps cropping up every now and then, which calls for re-engineering your list-building strategy to address the underlying cause for such a problem.

Here are some practical ways to help you keep the spam traps away from your mailing list:

1. Avoid Purchasing a Mailing List

One cannot stress enough how bad buying an email list can be for your business. While there may be some companies that do make use of proper collection methods but are they worth the risk?

In addition to spam traps, a purchased mailing list may not even be effective in your email marketing efforts! This is due to the fact that the receivers have not legitimately subscribed to your mailing list, and will essentially mark your correspondences as spam!

2. Make Use of Double Opt-ins

When a subscriber fills out details in your sign up form, double opt-in triggers an additional step where the subscriber is issued a confirmation email to verify their email address. As a result, it not only ensures that the email address belongs to a real human but also confirms that individual wishes to join your mailing list. Furthermore, it can help detect typos or fake emails that might have made their way on your list and can possibly result in a spam trap.

3. Validate New Email IDs

While double opt-ins can help identify the high-risk emails, keeping your list safe and clean also calls for email validation. It is capable of rejecting incorrect, misspelled, abuse, catch-all, or similar email addresses that may damage your sender reputation or contaminate your mailing list. Given that they filter out bad email addresses right at the signup form, your mailing list remains clean and is not tainted by these erroneous entries.

4. Remove Bounced Email Addresses

Pay close attention to your bounce rates and corresponding notifications. The invalid email addresses that feature here must be eliminated from your active mailing list. At the same time, also add these possible spam trap emails to your suppression list so that you do not accidentally send to them or reacquire them again.

READ NOW: Different Types of Email Bounces and How to Fix Them

5. Segment Inactive Subscribers

Even after implementing re-engagement strategies, subscribers that continue to remain chronically inactive are of no value to your business. Furthermore, there is a strong chance that such email addresses could end up as recycled spam traps. Considering that they have nothing to offer to your business, it would be wise to segment these inactive subscribers or remove them entirely from your list.

Final Thoughts

It is important to monitor metrics like sender reputation or open rates. However, when seen individually, they may not offer a complete picture regarding spam traps. Hence, it is important to also factor in reports regarding spam complaints, presence in industrial blacklists, sending to unknown users, etc., while dealing with spam trap emailon your list.

Next, the best way to prevent falling prey to spam traps is by not acting like a spammer, which essentially boils down to:

  • Not buying a purchased mailing list
  • Scrubbing your list to filter out typos and dead email addresses
  • Using email validation and double opt-in to confirm that your recipients are legitimate subscribers

Introducing the best list-building and maintaining practices can be a challenge, but once you have a framework with the necessary tools in place, it is highly manageable. Plus, it is always better to play safe than to get tagged as an abusive sender or spammer as it may have negative ramifications to your revenue.

Abhay Nawathey is Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Clodura.AI. He has more than 22 years of experience in technology creation and software development, having worked in various leadership roles for software companies.

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