The Consequences of Spam Traps and Honeypots

Spam trapping is a method used by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to flush out potential spammers. If you send email to any spam traps in your email database, regardless of whether you’re producing the perfect email marketing campaigns, ISPs and Blacklist providers might consider you to be a spammer. For this reason, it is important to know what a spam trap is, how they come into existence  and how to avoid getting spam traps and honeypots onto your lists altogether.

What are spam traps?

Spam traps and honeypots are all email addresses ISPs and RBL providers use to trap and expose email harvesters that are constantly scanning the web for just about any email addresses they can find (often a high amount of role-based addresses), as well as to trap those with poor mailing list management  and bad sending practices.

Should a sender ever get caught hitting these spam traps, the consequences to sender’s reputation varies – depending on the type of spam trap hit.

The two main types of spam traps are:

  1. Recycled spam traps Major ISPs like Yahoo and Hotmail create spam traps using dormant accounts, usually when the user doesn’t log into their account for a lengthy period of time (roughly six months). These types of spam traps affect email marketers most commonly because at some point they may have legitimately signed up to receive email, but regardless of this, they are confirmed ‘dormant’ by the ISP, and any mail sent to such an account will automatically be flagged by ISPs. Hitting this type of spam trap can cause major delivery issues, however, most likely not as dire as the pure spam traps.
  1. Pure spam traps (or honeypots as they are commonly known) These types of addresses are created to capture spammers by placing them on websites, hidden from ordinary view that only automated web-harvesters will find. The consequences for hitting these types of spam traps are far more consequential, as email marketers are less likely to have these types of email address in their lists – unless they've harvested the email addresses from websites or purchased a list.

How spam traps affect delivery

The sender’s consequences for hitting a spam trap vary from ISP to ISP. Depending on the type of spam trap and the way it was setup, ISPs can decide whether to throttle campaigns, block the senders IP address or the entire IP range – affecting not only your own reputation, but that of other IP addresses as well. However, often a single spam trap hit can cause a sender’s IP address to get blocked or blacklisted, causing their deliverability rate to plummet.

How do spam traps get on your list?

As a legitimate email marketer, you may think you are immune to spam traps, but consider some common scenarios in which bad email addresses are most likely to appear on your email list:

  1. Web-harvested or purchased lists
    Any sort of purchased list would more than likely contain old, invalid and abandoned email addresses, so the chances of spam traps are very likely – higher if those addresses are harvested. This is why using web-harvested and purchased lists is really always a bad idea.
  1. Single opt-in lists
    Single opt-in’s stand a higher risk of being subject to errors, either users mistakenly misspelling their email address, or they purposely provide a fake email address to get access to some sort of promotion or product. The problem isn’t typo’s itself, it is if there are high volumes of mail being sent out to incorrect addresses which causes the high bounce rate that ISPs flag, which can cause delivery problems. Hence, proper list management is always encouraged.
  1. Migrating to a new service provider
    When clients change to a new ESP, the migration process is not always carefully thought out. Often clients carry over entire lists to their new ESP, without excluding unsubscribes and bounced addresses etc. This often contains bad email addresses that more than likely contain spam traps. One should only migrate those that are actively engaging in your campaigns to the new ESP.
  1. Offline sign up forms
    There is bound to be errors if acquiring email addresses offline and you are likely to end up with typo traps. Ideally, you should send a confirmation email before adding these addresses to your list.

What can you do to avoid spam traps?

Proactive spam-trap removal is like finding a needle in a haystack because at first glance these addresses appear legitimate. That said, it’s worth doing the following:

  • Review and prune your lists regularly – at least every six months – by segmenting subscribers based on their activity.
  • Move old, disengaged subscribers, e.g. anyone who hasn’t opened your email in the last six months, to a different list and try to reactivate their subscriptions with targeted messages
  • Provide subscribers with an easy way to update their personal information, so if in the event they abandon their circa 1999 email handle for a more chic 2013 address, they’ll still be able to get mail.
  • Remove all hard-bounced email addresses from your list immediately.
  • Switch to a double opt-in process
  • Send welcome messages via a separate IP address to confirm the address before it affects your sender reputation
  • Include a captcha in your sign-up process
  • Reject misspelled email addresses
  • Make new subscribers enter their email address twice to reduce the amount of typos.
  • Avoid role-based email addresses, e.g. [email protected] - because these addresses are built for process or functions, not as a communication tool for people
  • Monitor metrics such as complaints and bounce rates for atypical trends

It’s a never-ending task, but ultimately good list management remains the best way to protect yourself from spam traps, blocked messages and being blacklisted. Partner with a reputable email service provider that will help you with list management to achieve the best result.