Spam Traps that ISPs Use and How to Avoid Them

If you want to have any decent success as an email marketer, your deliverability is key. And spam-traps are one of the biggest enemies to your email deliverability. So it’s important to learn what a spam trap does, how to avoid spam traps, and how to fix any major issues you come across. Understanding all of this is key to maintaining the kind of high-deliverability that is crucial to your profits.

What Is Spam And How It Works

The whole internet hates spam, and for a good reason. It isn’t just that we all get annoyed when we see it in our inboxes. Spam also creates large financial damages and burdens the internet in a very real way. It creates huge additional costs for internet providers as well as your email inbox provider. This is mainly owed to its huge volume.

Formally speaking, “spam” is unsolicited commercial email. So technically if your cousin’s friend sends you an unsolicited email asking for a donation, that’s also “spam”. In real-world terms though, the term refers to high-volume unsolicited email campaigns. Note that part about the high-volume as it will be important to our discussion here.

How Spammers Get It Done

Fortunately, most email service providers are good at preventing spammers from using their services. This means that a spammer can’t just go ahead and get an enterprise email-sending plan and start spamming people. Neither Emercury nor any other email-sending company will let this happen. In fact, spammers don’t even try.

Instead, spammers will generally use a network of zombie computers and botnets. There are actually millions of personal computers around the globe that are infected, and they are sending spam emails without their owner even knowing it.

But how do they get those email addresses to spam in the first place?

Spammers obtain high volumes of email addresses without the owner’s understanding or permission. That’s what defines and differentiates spam from legitimate email marketing. Make a note of this distinction, as it will become important to you as an email marketer.

In general, spammers will buy large lists of email addresses. They might buy them from a nefarious email marketer who originally obtained them for a legitimate purpose but is now reselling those addresses. Or, as is more frequently the case, they purchase them from hackers.

These hackers have many ways of compiling lists of email addresses. They might build software that scours the internet for publically listed addresses. Or they might hack your email account, and extract a list of everyone that you’ve ever emailed.

Why all of this matters to email marketers

In essence, email marketers have 2 defining characteristics in common with spammers. You see, first of all, email marketing involves campaigns where you send the same email to many different people. This is quite similar to a spammer.

And then secondly, as an email marketer, you’re sending emails that are commercial in nature – just like the spammers. This means that to an email inbox provider, legitimate marketing emails can seem very similar to spam emails.

Now, there is some good news. Inbox providers know that the user wants to receive those legitimate emails. They actually want your emails to get into that inbox. In fact, they work very hard to build software that differentiates your legitimate volume emails from a spammer’s volume emails.

There are multiple ways that they achieve this. They might look at the subject lines and content. For example, spammers are far more likely to use cheesy subject lines, dramatic keywords, and hyped-up promises. You know, things like using an all-caps FREE or “LOSE FIFTY POUNDS NOW”.

Unfortunately, there is some overlap here as some overzealous legitimate marketers can use “spammy-looking” subject-lines and content. Hint: don’t do that.

But also, the content test doesn’t catch all spammers. Some spam emails may pass a content test. This is why spam-prevention teams have to also use other ways to differentiate spam from legitimate emails. One of the most clever tools in their toolbox is something called “the spam traps”.

What Are Spam Traps

There are many reasons your emails fail to reach the inbox of your subscribers. One of the main reasons today is getting caught up in something called “spam traps”.

These are basically “honeytrap email addresses”. They belong to no one real person in particular, and only exist to lure “bad senders” into a trap.

Spam traps are set up and managed by ISPs, corporate email servers, IT security companies and anti-spam organizations.

If your email ends up in the inbox of a spam trap, you may get identified as a spam sender. The impact of a spam trap varies depending on the type of spam trap and how the ISPs and operators of these spam traps choose to handle your case.

How spam traps work

It is impossible to legitimately send a solicited email to these addresses. If you send an email to these addresses, you are by definition a “bad sender”. Now you might be a full outright spammer or merely “lazy” with what email addresses you accept and keep in your database. Either way, sending too many emails to spam traps is an automatic bad sign about you as an email sender.

spam traps

One of the reasons anti-spam organizations and ISPs set up spam traps is to keep email marketers from poor mailing list management and sending unsolicited emails.

That should tell you something. Despite the name being based on “spam”, these traps are not limited to punishing pure spammers. They also target legitimate email marketers with poor permission management.

Why Should You Beware Spam Traps

Damage to your sender reputation

Every outgoing mail server has its own IP address. This includes the one you use to send emails to your subscribers. Among other things, your sender reputation is affected by the state of your mail server IP address.

Sending volume, complaints, bounce rates and the rate of unknown users all contribute to a score that indicates your sender reputation. The email servers of each recipient decide what to do with incoming emails based on your sender reputation.

Deliverability damage by IP blacklist

Email clients have integrated spam filters that are used to create whitelists and blacklists. Spam filters monitor various parameters like domain names, email addresses, file hashes and IP addresses. Spam traps can trigger IP-based email blacklisting, which is hard to recover from.

Permanent domain blacklist

The spam filters that email clients use also monitor domains associated with the sender. Spam traps operated by ISPs can blacklist and block your domain, causing extreme damage. Recovering from permanent domain blacklist is not easy and depends on the ISP that blacklisted your domain.

spam traps

Progressive deliverability damage by filtering

Many ISPs and companies consult anti-spam organizations’ databases to filter incoming mail. If your email gets to a spam trap operated by an anti-spam organization, all ISPs and companies using the anti-spam organization’s database will filter your emails as spam.

Pure spam traps

Email addresses that have never been registered and used by anyone are called pure spam traps. Email addresses that are pure spam traps are registered by ISPs or anti-spam organizations to expose spammers and unethical email marketers.

spam traps

There are many ways to avoid pure spam traps if you utilize good mailing list hygiene. Companies and organizations usually fall into pure spam traps because they use purchased mailing lists.

Recycled spam traps

A recycled spam trap is an abandoned and out of use email address that has been reused by the email provider and repurposed as a spam trap. Recycled spam traps function the same way as pure spam traps.

Provided you maintain your mailing list regularly and properly, the chance of falling into a recycled spam trap is significantly lower. Recycled spam traps have lower damage potential. However, it’s easier to fall into a recycled spam trap than a pure spam trap.

Invalid Email Addresses

Registration forms in unexpected places can result in users entering fake email addresses. which can incidentally end as spam traps. Also, even though not common, it may happen that a potential subscriber misspells their email address, thereby inadvertently entering an email address that is actually a spam trap.

Email address typos can occur in the username or the domain side of the address, though the latter ones are more commonly spam traps. You can easily avoid invalid or fake email addresses that happen to be spam traps. Set up a double opt-in system that requires email confirmation and you’ll be safe from incidental spam traps.

How to avoid spam traps

Avoid buying email lists: Obtaining ready-made mailing lists can make you feel like you have a head start in your email marketing campaigns. There are many companies that claim to provide targeted email addresses and databases to help you reach the audience you want to target.

However tempting it may be to buy a mailing list, the risks outweigh the potential benefits. Purchased mailing lists have the highest spam trap incidence rate. When it comes to curating a quality mailing list, slow and steady wins the race.

Keep mailing lists up to date

The best way to avoid spam traps is to grow your mailing list carefully and update it regularly. Proper mailing list hygiene can help you not only avoid spam traps but better target your intended audience as well. Mailing list hygiene involves dealing with high bounce rates, invalid email addresses, and inactive subscribers. Freeing up your mailing list from addresses that don’t contribute to your campaign can help you avoid spam traps.

spam traps

Keep bounce rates in check

The percentage of emails that can’t be delivered is called a bounce rate. Email sent to invalid email addresses trigger hard bounces. Soft bounces indicate an email server issue even if the email still reaches the recipient’s inbox. Bounce rates can affect your deliverability and sender reputation. Keep bounce rates in check by deactivating recipients with undeliverable emails and focusing on user engagement.

Maintain List Hygiene

A lot of the steps we discussed here fall under the category of “doing list cleanup”. But just like taking a shower or brushing your teeth, it shouldn’t be something you do every few months. That’s why experienced email marketers prefer using a term like “list hygiene“.

The name itself tells you that it’s something that’s done on a continual basis. You do want to clean up your list, and then keep it clean. It really helps if you have a quality email marketing platform on your side though. Over here at Emercury, for example, we’re kinda “obsessed” with list-hygiene and deliverability. That means we do our best to make it easy for you to get top-notch deliverability. And that includes making it easy to maintain list-hygiene.

Delete inactive emails from your lists

It’s not uncommon for ISPs to use email engagement metrics to regulate and determine sender reputation and email delivery rates. Over time, inactivity may trigger higher bounce rates. Hard bounces and undeliverable emails can signify an early abandonment of an email address. Abandoned email addresses carry the risk of becoming recycled spam traps.

Use double opt-in or soft opt-in

Two-step opt-in systems are the best way to ensure you send mail to subscribers who really want to receive it. Single opt-in systems don’t involve any form of confirmation. Unconfirmed opt-ins can be an open door for malicious subscriptions. Soft opt-in represents temporary mailing permission and the receiver can turn into a regular subscriber whenever he or she wants to.

Double opt-in systems with email confirmation are considered best practice in curating quality mailing lists. Acquiring new email addresses with double opt-in certainly diminishes the chances of running into a spam trap.

How To Fix A Spam Trap Problem

There are two sides to this problem as well as to the solution. If you’re like most people you’re probably asking “How do I find and remove the spam traps on my list right now”. But you should also be asking the more important question which is “How do I stop getting spam traps on my list in general”.

Unfortunately, there exists no tool or list that can tell you “Ok, these emails are spam traps”. Fortunately, it isn’t too difficult, but you will have to take some manual steps. Let’s look at some of these steps.

Delete all the inactive subscribers

With a platform like Emercury, this is rather simple. Just get a report that identifies people by engagement within a certain timeframe. For example, get it to produce a list of the people haven’t engaged at all in 5 months. And then delete this group of email addresses altogether.

Create a campaign that reconfirms interest

If you’re not fond of deleting inactives outright, this is another option. You can create an email campaign to give them one last chance. Tell them quite directly that you’re pruning your list and you only want to send emails to interested subscribers. If they want to stay on the list, they need to confirm their interest by clicking a link.

And of course, you can combine the two strategies. Perhaps first go and outright delete those who haven’t engaged for more than 6 months. But then segment out the people who haven’t engaged in more than 3 months and send them a reconfirmation campaign.

Create a long-term plan

If you have spam traps in your lists it means that there is something wrong with your overall process. Even if you delete all spam traps currently on the list, it’s not going to make things better. You’re just preventing things from getting worse. But ISPs will still see you as the sender who’s consistently emailing new spam traps.

So you really need to focus on creating a process that eliminates those spam traps altogether. The obvious first step is to make sure that you use double-opt-in as we discussed. Then, put a process in place that detects subscribers who become inactive over time and handles them in an appropriate manner.

Now, this process can be something you do manually every few weeks. You would go into your reports and try to ascertain which of your new subscribers are failing to engage. You would then create a re-engagement campaign to see if you can bring them back. If not, proceed to delete them from your list.

Or, alternatively, if you use a platform like Emercury you can create an email automation that does all of this for you on auto-pilot.

Work With Professional Delivery Managers

All of these things are so much easier when you choose an ESP that actually cares about deliverability. Ironically enough, most email sending providers don’t care much about your deliverability. Some even act as if though high-deliverability should be a luxury that’s only enjoyed by big corporate clients.

At Emercury we include all of the best deliverability features with every paid plan. That’s right, with Emercury you don’t need to get an “enterprise plan” to enjoy top-level deliverability. In fact, every paid plan comes with bundled delivery management. It’s not a separate add-on, it is factored into the price. This is because we believe that high deliverability is a must for every email marketer.

If you’re curious, feel free to take a look at our options. There is a reason that so many marketers are coming in droves and switching to Emercury. Once you “get it” that email deliverability is one of the key factors to the profitability of your email marketing, you won’t accept anything less.

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