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How to avoid spam traps with good email list hygiene

Amy Elliott Amy Elliott
· 15 min read · June 15th, 2022
Spam traps are damaging to your sender reputation but you don’t have to worry about them if you practice proper email list cleaning habits! Here's how you can keep your email list spick and span—plus what to do if you think you've been blocklisted.

Growing your email list from scratch is hard work. The last thing you want is for it to be infiltrated by spam traps! 

Even if you follow email best practices, spam traps can sometimes happen. But if you communicate with your subscribers with the best intentions, care about their experience, and practice good email list hygiene, taking care of spam traps is no big deal! 

In this article, we’ll help you learn about different spam traps, how to avoid them, and how to get yourself out of them. Let’s get to it!

What is a spam trap?

A spam trap (sometimes known as a honeypot email) is an email address used for the sole purpose of catching spammers. Since these emails have no real use and don’t belong to real subscribers, any messages sent to these addresses are considered unsolicited emails and thus spam.

Spam trap

Spam traps are defined by a few attributes that make them effective at catching spam emails. These are:

  • Spam trap email addresses lead to working inboxes. Emails sent to them won’t bounce or be rejected, they are deliverable. 

  • Spam traps are managed by individuals or organizations with the goal of eliminating spam. They are either monitored manually or through automation. 

They are not associated with a real user, which means there is no way a spam trap can legitimately sign up for your email list.

923.2 messages are sent on average to spam trap email addresses, while 3,949,305 have been sent to the most targeted spam trap - Project Honeypot, June 14th 2022

Which organizations run spam traps?

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes to protect our inboxes from spam, all of which is carried out by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), anti-spam organizations and domain blocklisting services. 

In addition to spam filters, ISPs such as Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook and AOL all maintain their own army of honeypots. Sending an email to an ISP’s spam trap can get your IP permanently blocked, with removal being almost impossible. 

Domain Name System Blocklists (DNSBL) are spam lists that allow website administrators to block IPs that have a history of sending spam. DNSBL owns over 90% of the internet’s spam traps, and circulates them around channels popular with spammers looking for email addresses to scrape.

Types of spam traps

While spam traps help identify spam-like practices and behavior, not all spam traps have the same effect on your sender reputation and email deliverability. Some may highlight sloppy sending practices while others may land you in a blocklist from which it’ll be very difficult to leave.

Pristine spam traps

Pristine traps are email addresses that have never been used before. These emails are created by anti-spam organizations—like major Internet service providers (ISPs) and blocklist providers—for the sole purpose of being spam traps. Pristine emails are often found in purchased email lists

Having a pristine address in your subscriber list does the most damage to your sender reputation. It means that the only possible way you fell into this spam trap is that you obtained the email address without permission from its owner.

Recycled spam traps

Recycled traps are email addresses that were once used before. They have been abandoned by their owners, deactivated, and then repurposed as spam traps. Examples include emails of ex-employees and domains of inactive websites.

A recycled email will initially hard bounce to tell senders that it is inactive. Once it becomes a spam trap, it will identify senders who ignore the hard bounce and continue to send emails. While recycled addresses don’t harm your reputation as much as pristine addresses, they reveal sloppy list management or poor email list hygiene.

In the table below you'll find the inactivity periods that ISPs allow before they are deactivated.

ISP Inactivity period
Gmail 24 months
Outlook 365 days
Yahoo 365 days
AOL 12 months
Proton Mail 12 months
Zoho 180 days
Mail.com 6 months

Invalid email addresses

Invalid email addresses include typos and fake emails. Email typos are mistakes that happen when entering email addresses in online or paper forms. Common examples include errors with sending domains like @gmial.com, @gnail.com or @yhoo.com.

The impact of invalid addresses on your sending reputation isn’t as severe as pristine emails. Their presence, however, means that you’re not verifying emails as you collect them or before sending out your first email. In a tricky twist for email marketers, some invalid addresses may coincidentally turn out to be spam trap addresses as well!

Why spam traps are dangerous

You’ll land on a blocklist

Hitting a spam trap may land you in an email blocklist where errant senders are identified by their IP address and domain. Spam filters, for example, use these blocklists along with other criteria to decide if an email is spam. Stay on these blocklists long enough and you’ll quickly find all your emails routed to the spam folder.

If you use an Email Service Provider (ESP) you could get your account suspended. Most ESPs have strict rules about spammy activity, and won’t hesitate to block you from their services.

Your email metrics will suffer

Even if you don’t land in a blocklist, keeping recycled and invalid subscribers on your list will affect your campaign’s performance. If you’re not taking steps to maintain a healthy list, you will be looking at lower subscriber engagement, poor deliverability, and a greater chance of ending up in the spam folder. 

No list of spam trap email addresses exists

If you were wondering where you can find a list of spam traps, we’re sorry to tell you, there isn’t one that’s available to the public! There is also no way to determine whether an email address is a spam trap or not, because they are attached to a working inbox that can receive mail. 

Some services claim to be able to identify spam traps, and while it might be possible to catch some of them, there is no certainty. Spam traps are constantly being updated and created—it’s impossible to keep up with them, no matter what a service might promise.

This is why spam traps are so effective at catching spammers, and why it’s important to always follow email list best practices!

Project Honey Pot is currently monitoring a whopping 490,228,872 spam traps. 😱

What can land you in a spam trap

Purchasing email lists

Buying a list of email addresses that haven’t opted in to your newsletter is a surefire way to find yourself in hot water with anti-spam agencies, ISPs and IP blocklists. These email lists are often compiled by scraping websites and forums for emails. Not only can sending to purchased emails get you blocked, but you’ll also be sending to low-quality subscribers that will only be detrimental to your engagement, sender reputation and deliverability.

Poor email list hygiene and management

Spam traps are not only used to catch spammers. They are also for catching out senders who fail to regularly clean and maintain their email list. Some spam traps are created after real email addresses have been abandoned. That means that if a subscriber joins your list, and then deserts the email they signed up with, it could eventually become a spam trap—a spam trap that is automatically a part of your email list. 

Malicious intent

It’s possible that a competitor or spammer can intentionally sign up a known spam trap to your email list to cause harm to your organization or to attempt to discredit the spam trap service. 

The luck of the draw

When it comes to building your email list, you rely on the subscriber accurately entering their details so you can reach them. Human error means that typos happen, which spam traps use to their advantage. While you can’t control the accuracy of your subscribers’ typing skills, you can take steps to avoid this happening, such as implementing double opt-in or a real time email verification API.

How you can avoid spam traps

Maintain proper email list hygiene

Practicing good email list hygiene means regularly removing inactive subscribers from your list. Monitor your open rates to identify people who don’t interact with your emails as they will only harm your sending reputation. Focus on your list quality rather than quantity!

Keep your databases up to date

When was the last time you took a long, hard look at your contact list? If you haven't contacted these people in a long time, say 2 years, then it’s probably better to start your list from scratch. People will have moved on during this time, changing their jobs, roles, interests or locations.

Grow your list organically and honestly

We can’t emphasize this enough: never, ever purchase an email list. The reality is that these emails were likely gathered without permission from their owners and are likely to be outdated. Not to mention, you’re breaking email laws like the GDPR and CAN-SPAM Act.

Instead of taking shortcuts like shopping for an email prospect list, it’s better for your business and brand in the long run to grow your list organically. Adopt a different approach by helping prospects find your business and letting them opt-in to your list.

Avoid harvesting emails from the web

It’s easy to get caught up in the convenience of harvesting emails from the web. If they’re publicly available on the Internet, they must be free for the taking right? Wrong. Using email programs like web crawlers and email scraping tools is a surefire way to gather honeypot emails and get yourself blocklisted.

Use double opt-in for new subscribers

When people sign up for emails from you, your work isn’t done just because they entered an email address and clicked submit. Don’t accept their email at face value because they might have made a typo somewhere or provided a fake email address.

Use double opt-in to add an additional check when you collect emails. Send a confirmation email that requires a person to confirm their email address. Having a real person confirm they are using a legitimate email address reduces the chances of them being a spam trap.

Run an email verification tool regularly

Once you’ve grown your high-quality list, you’ll want to take steps to maintain it’s health.

You can automate list cleaning with the help of an email validation tool like MailerCheck. Simply upload a list from your favorite email marketing platform to clean, analyze and highlight potential spam traps like emails with typos and syntax errors.

Also, you can verify emails as you collect them in your apps and websites using a real-time email API. Instantly filter out bad emails before they’re added to your list and save time and effort running regular cleaning jobs.

Try MailerCheck for free!

Get 200 free credits to start verifying your emails now, no credit card needed.

Ouch! How to get out of a spam trap

So you’ve hit a honeypot email address—don’t panic! You might have hit a spam trap somewhere in your subscriber list. Take these steps to salvage your list and narrow down the suspects.

1. Segment inactive subscribers

The first thing you should do is segment your list by your subscribers’ behavior using your email marketing software. You’re going to identify people who have not opened your emails, for example, in the past 180 days or last 3 campaigns. You can adjust the rules to filter inactive subscribers according to your requirements and, after you’ve segmented them, you can try to re-engage them.

2. Send a win-back campaign

If you have subscribers who haven’t interacted with your emails in the past 180 days, don’t give up on them yet. Try to re-engage them with a win-back email campaign. They signed up with you for a reason, so use this chance to remind them of your value and content.

Ideally, you want your inactive subscribers to take some form of action with your re-engagement email. The call to action could be clicking a button to “stay subscribed” or accepting an incentive like a limited offer or downloadable content.

3. Try an auto-resend campaign

For a last-ditch effort, you can try sending out an auto-resend campaign if you’re using an ESP like MailerLite. This feature will automatically send out another email to your subscribers if they did not open your first email or click on a link inside it.

However, use auto-resend campaigns with caution! Some people may see them as persistent and annoying, marking your emails as spam. Save them for a last-chance offer or to inform subscribers that they will be removed from your list soon.

4. Time to say goodbye

So you’ve performed these 3 steps but, for whatever reason, there are still subscribers who refuse to interact with your emails. At this point, it’s time to cut your losses. While it is painful to trim your subscribers, you can completely remove these inactive emails from your email list to avoid potentially sending anything to them in the future.

Continue to keep your lists clean

You don’t have to worry about major spam traps if you keep your email lists clean. Follow proper email hygiene practices—like verifying emails as you collect them or cleaning your list often—and your healthy email list will pay itself off in the long run.

How do you keep your email list clean and free from spam traps? Share your tips in the comments!

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Editor’s note: This post was originally published in 2021. We've now updated it with new tips and information.

Amy Elliott
I’m Amy, Content Writer at MailerCheck. As a child, I dreamt about writing a book and practiced by tearing pages from an A4 notepad and binding them with sugar paper. The book is pending but in the meantime, I love taking a deep dive into technical topics and sharing insights on email metrics and deliverability.