How Marketers Can Avoid Those Dreaded Email Spam Traps

Corey Wainwright
Corey Wainwright



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Email inboxes are precious territory. So it's no surprise marketers are aching to get some real estate in those bad boys! It's also no surprise, however, that spammers are fighting tooth and nail to get in there, too.

But what about the people in between email marketers and spammers? You know ... the ones who are doing mostly good email marketing, but aren't really cleaning their lists. Or the ones who generate mostly opt-in email addresses, but got pressured by their boss to buy a list or two. Are they going to suffer the same repercussions as straight up email spammers?

Well, if they hit a spam trap ... yeah, they might.

But it's not that black and white. There are different types of spam traps, varying levels of repercussions for hitting them, and some email marketers that are more likely to hit them based on the makeup of their contacts database. That's a lot of shades of gray. So we sat down with our own email deliverability specialist Evan Murphy and consulted a fantastic article on BriteVerify by former Hotmail postmaster Travis Wetherbee that discusses the subject of spam traps in great detail to get some clarity on this hot-button issue. Here's what we learned about spam traps that we think email marketers should know.

What Are Spam Traps?

Spam traps are a tool ISPs use to identify and track email spammers. They are email addresses that shouldn't be receiving email -- for a couple of reasons that we'll cover in just a moment -- and as such alert the ISPs that the email sender might be a spammer, or at the very least, an email marketer who doesn't follow good sender practices. If you get flagged as one of these, it's extremely difficult to get any of your email delivered to ISPs; so staying away from spam traps is a big, big deal for any email marketer.

There are two types of spam traps you should be aware of: pure spam traps, and recycled spam traps. Pure spam traps are the worst for your sender reputation, making it extremely difficult for you to deliver email to an inbox if you're caught sending to one. Why are they so bad? Because pure spam trap email addresses are set up with the sole purpose of identifying spammers. In other words, there's no conceivable reason any sender should have that email address ... unless they got it in a sketchy way, like harvesting lists or scraping websites. Bad news bears, indeed.

Recycled spam traps, on the other hand, could have been active email addresses at one point in time. That means they might have just gone dormant or inactive, and they've been taken over by the ISP after a period of inactivity. At this point, ISPs will deliver a hard bounce notification to email marketers so they know they're emailing an inactive account. It's at that point email marketers should remove the email address from their list. Some of them, however, don't -- that's when they feel the wrath of recycled spam traps. Because after a couple months, ISPs convert those email addresses into recycled spam traps and stop delivering hard bounce notifications to email senders. If you keep emailing that address, they'll mark it as a spam trap hit.

These hits aren't good by any means, but they're less harmful to your overall Sender Score  and future ability to deliver email than a pure spam trap hit ... because at least it made sense that email address was on your list at some point. I mean, you're not doing a good job at email list hygiene, but they could have still opted in once upon a time.

What Happens if You Get Caught in a Spam Trap?

Like I said, it depends what kind of spam trap you get caught in -- the repercussions for being caught in a recycled spam trap are less severe than if you were caught in a pure spam trap. If you've hit a pure spam trap, your IP address, and most likely your "from domain," will be blocked immediately. (I told you the repercussions were severe.) BriteVerify reported that one of their clients with an excellent sender reputation, upon hitting a pure spam trap, saw their email deliverability plummet from 98% down to 25% overnight. If your IP address is hit by a pure spam trap, it could take anywhere from 6 months to a year to recover a good sender reputation.

If you've hit a recycled spam trap, you won't be immediately sent to the ninth circle of email marketing hell. It's more likely you'll just be sent to the junk folder. At first, anyway. Your first infraction will still act as a signal to ISPs that they should monitor you to see if you continue to hit that recycled email address. If you do, it's a sign that you likely haven't had a relationship with that person in a while, and practice poor email list hygiene. That could take you from just landing in the junk folder, to a plummeting deliverability rate.

Could You Have a Spam Trap on Your List?

Sooo ... it sounds like a pretty bad idea to email spam traps. If you do, it'll impact your ability to deliver email, and it's kind of hard to do email marketing if you can't send any emails. So let's just address the elephant in the room -- do you have any spam traps on your list?


If you've done any of the following, it's possible you have a spam trap on your list that could impact your email deliverability:

  • Purchased an email list - The email addresses on a purchased list could be extremely old, increasing the likelihood they've since turned into recycled spam traps. Alternately, the email addresses could have been harvested, and thus could contain the dreaded pure spam traps.
  • Started emailing an extremely old portion of your list - "Hey! Remember these guys? We haven't emailed them in years!" Uh ... that might be for the best. If you start emailing people you haven't contacted in years, many of those email addresses could have gone dormant and morphed into a recycled spam trap. If you're looking to re-awaken old contacts, reference this blog post that teaches you how to do it without harming your Sender Score and email deliverability.
  • Been emailing unengaged subscribers - You can also run into trouble emailing relatively new email contacts. If they're not engaged with your email content, that is. Many email marketers run into spam trap trouble when they continue to email contacts that have opted in, but haven't actually engaged with any emails. Think about it ... you could opt in to a list today, abandon that email address a month from now, and that address could turn into ... that's right, a spam trap! That's why it's critical to always keep an eye out for email addresses that go dormant, whether old or new. That way, you'll be able to remove them from your active email list. And if any of those turn into spam traps, you'll be glad you did.

If you fall into any of these buckets and you're suspicious you might have hit a spam trip, consider your delivery and bounce rates. If 1) you're seeing delivery rates plummet, 2) you're not seeing high bounce rates, and 3) you're seeing low email engagement you might be suffering a spam trap hit. Makes sense, right? If you hit a spam trap, you're certainly not going to receive a bounce notification, and there's not much email getting through for people to actually engage with!

How Can Email Marketers Avoid Spam Traps?

You're not going to like this answer, but ... don't get spam trap addresses on your list. What an annoying answer, right?

That means you're not purchasing email lists, you're not harvesting lists on your own, you're removing hard bounces from your contacts database (if HubSpot is your ESP, we do this for you automatically), and continuously cleansing your list to re-engage your sleepy subscribers, and remove the disengaged ones. You should also be sure to maintain a suppression list. That way, if you ever change email service providers, you don't find yourself accidentally emailing contacts you suppressed once upon a time.

These are the only surefire ways to prevent yourself from hitting spam traps -- good ol' white hat list generation and email marketing. If you already have spam traps on your list, you're in a more precarious situation; but there is recourse. Expensive, time-consuming recourse. You could try to re-confirm your entire email database. Asking people to re-confirm that they want to receive emails from you will likely result in a sharp decrease in the size of your database, but it will certainly help you ensure you're only left with the people who want to be on your list. It's a drastic measure, to be sure, but if you know you've generated your contacts in illicit ways in the past and are looking to change your ways, it's one way to ensure you're starting out with a clean slate.

Have you ever been hit by a spam trap? What impact did it have on your email deliverability?

Image credit: betsyweber

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