The Sticky Mess of Spam Traps

Posted by Courtney Finger 

Winnie the Pooh was one of my favorite story books growing up. My sisters and I used to read his stories together to see what crazy antics that bear and his friends would get into. And there was nothing more that good ol’ Winnie the Pooh liked more than a pot full of honey.

While honeypots make for a great bear snack in a cute children’s book, a honeypot (which is also a type of spam trap) is not an email marketer’s friend. As a reminder, here are a few definitions as we start the conversation about spam traps:     

  • Spam traps are email addresses or servers specifically designed, maintained, and monitored to capture abusive email practices. There are two main types.
  • Pristine spam traps (also called “honeypots”) are email addresses that have never been used as a legitimate mailbox. These addresses are created for the sole purpose of capturing spammers and usually trap the worst spammers who engage in questionable address acquisition practices. Many spam trap operators post pristine trap addresses on websites. The email addresses are hidden in the background code of the web page and are acquired by spambots scraping for email addresses.
  • Recycled spam traps (also called re-purposed spam traps) are email addresses that were once used as a legitimate inbox but have been reclaimed by mailbox providers and recycled to catch abusive emails. These addresses also trap legitimate marketers with weak data quality practices.

Especially this time of year, marketers think about growing their list to reach as many people as possible to increase revenue. They do this by reaching further back in their list, opening up suppressions or mailing to lists that have not been mailed to in a long time. While this may seem like a good idea, it could cause devastating effects on your email program. The older email addresses could have become recycled spam traps over time.

The idea of purchasing lists may also come up as a way to grow your list. This is an extremely risky move for many reasons as it is another way to unintentionally acquire pristine spam traps.

All of this is especially important because mailbox providers do filter mail based on the number and severity of spam traps hit. Filtering companies like Cloudmark take spam traps just as seriously as complaints. Picking up a Cloudmark fingerprint can affect deliverability at a large number of mailbox providers. Spam traps can also land you on blacklists like SpamHaus.  Blacklistings and fingerprints can result in large declines in inbox placement.

So is there a silver bullet fix for a spam trap issue?
The honest answerno. The hardest part is that once you have a spam trap issue, it can be difficult to fix. There are no lists that will tell you what spam trap addresses to remove. However, here are a few things that you can do to minimize the issue:

Consider your business model. Some business models require email addresses for access to websites or information (such as mobile gaming or flash sale sites). Some subscribers who use these sites may enter in an older email address they do not use anymore just to gain access. It could mean the address the subscriber uses may already be a spam trap.  This could make some types of businesses more susceptible to spam traps than others. Depending on how many avenues you have for list acquisition or sign up, it is a good idea to segment based on acquisition to try and pinpoint where the spam traps may be coming from.

Send your email only to consenting subscribers. If someone has willingly opted in to receive your mail, the likelihood of their email address being a spam trap is low. This also ensures that you do not send to any comprised list sources or subscribers who do not want your mail—which can also help lessen the likelihood of complaints.

Practice good list hygiene. If you expanded your list, tighten your suppression back to the time frame you had in place before you had the spam trap issue. Those are your more recent and active subscribers with the lower likelihood of being a spam trap. Usually, six months is a good timeframe to consider, but this also depends on your business model and sales cycle. A spam trap will not engage with mail (no clicks, opens, etc). If an address has not engaged with your messages in that time frame, it may be time to suppress them from your list. Also, track and treat any riskier segments or sources separately so you know where an issue may lie.

Have sound processes for removing hard bounces. Before an email address becomes a recycled spam trap, the mailbox provider will warn the sender by returning that email addresses as a hard bounce first. If you have a good process of removing hard bounces after the first bounce, this will help remove old email addresses before they ever turn into a spam trap.

How can I determine if I have a spam trap issue?
Without the right data, you may never know if you have a spam trap issue. Within the Return Path tool suite, we are able to monitor spam trap counts to help troubleshoot the issue.

Within our Reputation Monitor tool, we monitor the number of spam trap hits, both pristine and recycled, over various time periods from data within our reputation data network. The graph below also shows trends by date of spam trap hits, which can be very helpful when trying to pinpoint the start of the issue.



Through our Certification program, we can monitor additional trap hits within the data from our certification data network.



Armed with solid best practices for sending and the right list management skills, you can keep spam traps out of your hair this holiday season and keep your focus on subscribers who truly want to open, read, click, and buy. And we can let Winnie the Pooh keep all the honeypots for himself!

For other information on spam traps, read The Rise and Risk of Spam Trap Lists.

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About Courtney Finger

Courtney Finger is a Product Marketing Manager at Return Path where she uses her immense knowledge of Return Path products to shape everything from their messaging, positioning, and innovation. Courtney’s previous role as a Technical Account Manager gave her the skills and background to be a successful product marketer, requiring her to be an expert on Return Path’s products and solutions, and to understand the customer’s problems and needs. She loves working with teams across the company to bring products to market that truly enhance the lives of email marketers. In her spare time, Courtney loves to enjoy the Colorado Rocky Mountains and the incredible food and entertainment scene of downtown Denver.

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