A Spamtrap Primer for Upstanding Citizens

With the holiday email season at hand, it’s an opportune time to discuss the double-edged sword of email marketing: the spamtrap. On the one hand, spamtraps are a valuable tool for identifying and fighting spam, defined as unsolicited bulk email (sometimes referred to as UBE). On the other, much to the dismay of email marketers, spamtraps have been known to ensnare legitimate emailers, resulting in ISP blacklisting and blocking. In this article we’ll review the ins and outs of spamtraps and what scrupulous email marketers can do to avoid them.

Spamtraps Defined

Spamtraps are “dummy” (but fully functional and deliverable) email addresses used for the express purpose of attracting spam. Any messages hitting these addresses are presumed to be unsolicited bulk email. Spamtraps are developed by a range of entities, including ISPs, for-profit spam-filtering enterprises, nonprofit organizations, and individuals with an interest in “canning spam.”

Spamtrap developers monitor incoming email either automatically or manually to identify spammers, working with ISPs to block messages with the same content and/or originating from the same IP address. To prevent spammers from outsmarting the system, new spamtrap addresses are constantly being developed. There are literally tens of millions of spamtrap addresses, with a decentralized network of developers adding to the pool each day.

Why Should a Legitimate Marketer Care About Spamtraps?

The answer lies in the externalities, or unintended consequences, of spamtrap operations: in an effort to catch illegal spamming operations, spamtraps sometimes ensnare legitimate marketers

How does this happen? It’s a question of origin. Spamtraps are not all alike. There are generally two types of spamtraps:

  • Created from scratch: Some spamtraps are entirely new email addresses created for the sole purpose of luring spam.
  • Recycled addresses: Increasingly, abandoned and expired email addresses are being used as spamtraps by ISPs and spam-filter companies. When an address goes inactive and is selected as a spamtrap, it is “quarantined” for a period of 1-2 years, during which time it appears to be a bouncing email address to any outside senders. After the quarantine period, the address is launched as a spamtrap, under the assumption that legitimate senders should have eliminated it from their databases in the intervening months or years.

It is possible for scrupulous marketers to run afoul of either type of spamtrap. But “recycled addresses” clearly pose a more significant threat.

How Could This Happen to Me?

Consider these scenarios:

  • List aging: Your list maintenance falls behind, and through normal list churn and changes of address, you find that more and more of your emails are bouncing or inactive. Some of these addresses can turn into spamtraps without any warning.
  • Vendors/partners: You acquire an “opt-in” list through a not-so-thoroughly vetted partner or vendor. The list hasn’t been cleaned, but, through an oversight, it enters your marketing database as is. The list might include names scraped off the web or collected elsewhere – prime candidates for spamtraps.
  • Inadvertent mistakes: Customers registering on your site (or sales associates inputting emails at the point of sale) might input an address incorrectly. A simple misspelling might make a legitimate email address coincidentally match a spamtrap address.
  • Malicious intent: While we’d rather not even consider the possibility, there have been numerous incidents in which disgruntled employees, customers, or competitors have maliciously entered problematic email addresses on web-based registration pages.

How Bad Could One Spamtrap Be?

Hitting one or two spamtraps a few times could potentially bring down your entire email program. Blacklisting organizations with legitimate goals to protect consumers from spam have been known to penalize even large companies with established reputations in email marketing. Getting removed from a blacklist can sometimes require executing an agreement with the blacklist provider in which, for example, you agree to pare your list down to only those individuals who have opened and clicked through on your emails in the last 3-6 months. We’ve seen this happen with a Fortune 100 company whose list went from over 10 million names to under 500,000 – ouch! Protecting yourself from spamtraps should be top of mind for any email marketer.

What Can I Do to Protect My Email Program From Spamtraps?

If you are serious about avoiding spamtraps in your email database, you’ll want to take the following precautions:

  • Vet your data sources and database service providers more carefully than ever. Saving a few pennies on a lead or an email append will cost you a thousand-fold down the line if you get handed a spamtrap address as part of your results.
  • Practice regular list maintenance. List churn averages 30% per year, from customers changing jobs, schools, ISPs, email providers and the like. Quarterly or semi-annual list hygiene is imperative to keep your list fresh.
  • Once your list is clean, keep it that way. Avoid the “garbage in, garbage out” scenario by ensuring that known spamtraps and other malicious or bogus emails don’t enter your database in the first place. This can be done with a real-time email address correction service (REACT) or through a batch or cloud-based email hygiene and correction service. It’s much cheaper and easier to catch these problems on the front end rather than having to solve blocking and blacklisting issues after they’ve occurred.
  • Watch your engagement metrics carefully to remove inactives before these formerly valid email addresses get turned into spamtraps. Furthermore, consider an email change of address (ECOA) service to match old and new email addresses, enabling you to reconnect with lost customers while reducing your vulnerability to spamtraps AND fighting list attrition in the process.

The Devil’s in the Details

Spamtraps bedevil legitimate marketers – not just the spammers they’re intended to catch. The resulting blocking and blacklisting can have a disastrous impact on your entire email program, literally keeping you out of your customers’ inboxes for significant periods of time. So be sure to protect your deliverability – and your bottom line – with simple preventative maintenance and the help of knowledgeable vendors.

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