The Rise and Risks of Spam Trap Lists

Posted by Tom Sather on

Recently, an email marketer approached me to ask why a company they’re working with supplied them with specific spam traps they were sending to and why Return Path and other spam trap and blacklist operators won’t provide this information. The short answer: those aren’t spam traps—at least, not in the traditional sense. So what are these “spam traps,” and more importantly, are they even useful? As more and more deliverability, spam trap, and list hygiene services offer lists of spam traps to scrub your list with, it is important to understand the distinction, risk, and the value of these lists.

First, let’s have a refresher on what a spam trap is. Spam traps come in two flavors:

  • Pristine traps: Pristine traps are email addresses that have never been owned by an email subscriber. Pristine traps are “honeypots” meant to lure spammers who harvest email addresses from websites, or through dictionary attacks.
  • Recycled traps: Unlike pristine traps, recycled traps were once legitimate email addresses. These addresses were at one point abandoned, transitioning into unknown users (to give marketers a warning to remove the address from their list) before evolving into a recycled spam trap.

What are these (so called) spam trap lists given to email marketers by third party services to clean their lists?
Companies buy unused domains and set up various email addresses on each domain. If there’s an unused domain like “itsatrap.com,” they’d buy that domain and set up email addresses, like 12345@itsatrap.com. After creating the email addresses, they sit back and wait for the email accounts to receive emails. Since these accounts weren’t used to sign up for anything, mail received at these addresses is considered unsolicited and, therefore, spam. When these addresses begin to receive mail, the third party service will send data back to the sender with clear enough information for the sender to find the actual trap address.

While those addresses are by definition pristine spam traps, they are not used by mailbox providers, like Gmail, Yahoo!, and Outlook.com. Major blacklists by Spamhaus do not use these addresses to detect spam either. Therefore removing those address from your list won’t solve any problems you are having with the leading mailbox providers and blacklists.

On the other hand, Return Path’s spam trap network is made up of email addresses that are from actual mailbox providers and spam trap networks used by major blacklists and reputation spam filters. The spam traps included in the Return Path Data Cloud truly affect a sender’s deliverability and inbox placement rates at mailbox providers.

So wait. Are you telling me that I can’t get a list of the spam traps I’m sending to?
Yes. Mailbox providers, blacklist operators, and spam trap operators never, ever reveal spam traps. An untainted spam trap is essential for automated anti-spam systems. Since permission-based marketers shouldn’t be sending to spam traps, it’s safe for anti-spam systems to filter or block email from the originating IP address.

Spam traps become tainted when a third party discovers the actual spam trap email address(es) since spammers would use the information to avoid detection. Not only would it defeat the purpose of luring and catching spammers, but spammers also subscribe tainted spam traps to your email lists in hopes of blacklisting your sending IP address. Even if the organization supplying you with spam traps claim blacklists use these spam traps, it’s a dangerous practice as described above.

Are these pseudo-traps completely a waste of time then?
Yes and no. These pseudo-traps can help an email marketer find weaknesses in their email address acquisition sources and help email marketing solution providers locate bad senders on their network. However, for an email sender, removing these pseudo-traps from your list won’t improve your reputation, won’t improve your deliverability, and won’t get you delisted from a blacklist like Spamhaus. In fact, a shared, or tainted, spam trap can be used nefariously against businesses and organizations.

While these pseudo-traps aren’t completely without merit, any email marketing team should ask themselves if they’d rather have real spam trap data to solve problems or pseudo-traps that just tell you what you already know.


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About Tom Sather

Email data and deliverability expert Tom Sather has worked with top-tier brands to diagnose and solve inbox placement and sender reputation issues as a strategic consultant with Return Path. As the company’s senior director of research, Tom is a frequent speaker and writer on email marketing trends and technology. His most recent analysis of new inbox applications’ effects on consumer behavior was widely cited across leading business media outlets including the Financial Times, Ad Age, and Media Post.

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