A spam trap is an email address owned by blacklist operators or reputation tracking networks specifically designed to catch spammers. No legitimate individual or email marketer would have reason to send email to a spam trap, so any and all email sent to a spam trap address is considered spam, and whoever sent the email is considered a spammer.
There are three major varieties of spam traps:
- Pristine – A new address that is created to be a trap, and has never opted-in for any email or been used as a normal account.
- Recycled – An inactive, old address that has expired long ago and was revived as a spam trap.
- Typo – Addresses at misspelled domains (e.g. yaho.com or aoll.com).
Due to the differences in their nature, the three varieties of spam traps are not usually weighted equally when it comes to damaging your sender reputation. Sending to a typo or recycled trap will often be forgiven, but sending to a pristine spam trap is like a cardinal sin. Send to enough typo or recycled traps though, and you’ll still find yourself in hot water. So the consequences can range based on the scale and severity of your actions, but it’s worth knowing that sending to even a single pristine spam trap can get your sending domain or IP blacklisted. In short, spam traps are bad, and you don’t want to send email to them.
How Do I Identify Spam Traps on My Marketing List?
And here’s the rub: you don’t. Spam traps are intentionally kept secret, hence the trap. They appear innocuous, as normal email addresses to the outside world, often graciously accepting your email with one hand while silently putting your name on the naughty list with the other. Spam traps definitely don’t respond with bounce messages quoting Admiral Ackbar. If they were public knowledge, spammers would just avoid sending to them and the traps would become completely ineffective. So while you can’t just look at your marketing list and pick off the spam traps, there is something arguably better that you can do: know with certainty that there are no spam traps on your list.
Knowing that your list contains no spam traps is actually fairly easy, as long as you don’t intend to send spam. Spam trap accounts are not used as actual email accounts by real people – meaning they don’t sign up for marketing, and they don’t open and click on it either. So the spam-trap-litmus test for email addresses is to simply check if there is a real person behind the address. This is achieved in three steps, and every reputation tracking service and blacklist operator will agree that this method will keep you from sending to traps.
- Only send to recipients that have provided explicit permission for marketing. You might still get some typo traps at this point, but not enough to cause any problems.
- Use email confirmation to validate the recipient’s intent to receive marketing. If the recipient clicks a link to validate their intent, then congrats! It’s a real person, and not a pristine or typo spam trap. Refrain from sending to any address that does not confirm.
- Perform regular list hygiene to remove or reconfirm unengaged addresses so that once-valid addresses don’t persist on your list as they age into recycled spam traps.
If you find out that you have spam traps on your list after it’s too late, either because you were blacklisted or your email service provider has brought it to your attention, it means you have a severe problem. You’ll need to implement email confirmation and perform list hygiene, then repair your sender reputation. Spam traps are a bit like a police bait car in a parking lot during a sting operation. If a person breaks into the car and steals something, it’s burglary in the eyes of the law, regardless of their intent or reasoning. The best way to avoid getting caught breaking into bait cars? Don’t break into cars. The best way to avoid spam traps? Don’t send spam. In the eyes of reputation trackers and blacklist operators, there is no valid excuse for sending to a spam trap, only repentance.
About the author
Jake Hoiby is an email deliverability expert that manages email systems, sender reputation and user compliance. He teaches small businesses how to avoid common pitfalls of email marketing and ensure their email reaches the inbox. In his spare time you’ll find him building, automating and tinkering with just about everything.