Protect your business: 7 shady things when buying email lists

Duncan Duncan
· 16 min read · May 13th, 2024
We get it—building a quality email list takes time and buying an email list is a tempting shortcut! But, those few minutes of satisfaction won't be worth the hassle a purchased list will cause down the line.

Sending bulk emails to people who haven’t opted into your list risks reputational damage, can hurt your overall email deliverability, falls foul of email marketing platform terms and conditions, and is even illegal in some locations.

If you're considering purchasing an email list, you need to read this now! We’ll give you 7 reasons why you should NOT buy a list as well as some best practices for building a healthy, high-quality list.

Buying and selling email lists can be illegal depending on your location and the location of the people on the list.

For example, the EU’s GDPR, California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), Canada's CASL, and other laws, all state that you must have explicit consent from your contacts to send them emails. When you buy a list you don’t have this consent, which means sending emails to the people on it is illegal. 

Even if you buy an email list in a country where it is not forbidden by law, you may still be breaking laws if the list you buy includes subscribers based in countries where buying and selling lists is illegal. 

How does purchasing an email list work?

It’s possible to both buy and rent email lists. We recommend that you avoid doing either. Here is a look at how each option works and why they are problematic.  

Buying email lists

Email list vendors will sell you a group of email addresses that are yours to use forever. You can buy emails based on specific demographics or behavioral information such as purchasing habits or content consumption. The more targeted the emails, the higher the price.

Another trick is to offer ‘opt-in’ emails. Providers will tell you that all the people on the list opted in. While they might have opted into something, they definitely did not opt into your list! Don’t fall for this gimmick.

Renting an email list

Some email-list vendors lease out email addresses that you never see. You request your targeting criteria and trust the provider to send your email to this mystery list. 

While some of these vendors might seem legitimate or even well-known, this is not email marketing, but rather advertising. The subscribers have not asked to receive your email and you will most likely annoy them.

7 reasons you shouldn’t buy an email list

We hope we’ve been clear about the risks you face by buying email addresses, but just in case you are still tempted, we’ve listed seven serious reasons for you to reconsider purchasing email lists.

1. Avoid buying email lists because it’s illegal

Let’s start with the most obvious and serious reason: In many cases, it’s against the law to send emails to people who didn’t give you consent!

This means that even if you can buy the email list legally, you may still break the law when you send to these contacts. 

Unless you have specific legal guidance that it is legal to buy and send to a particular email database, sending to an email contacts you bought is extremely risky. 

Data privacy legislation around the world

Below is a list of relevant laws around data privacy and spam email sending globally. Check the ones relevant to you for detailed info on whether it’s legal to buy email lists.

General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) - Applies to the processing of personal data of EU citizens and those residing in all countries in the European Economic Area (EEA).

CAN-SPAM Act - A U.S. law that sets the rules for writing and sending commercial emails such as marketing and promotional emails. It empowers recipients to unsubscribe and delivers tough penalties for violations.

Canada Anti-Spam Legislation (ASL) - Requires businesses to gather consent before sending emails, among other email-related regulations.

California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) - Applies to the processing of personal information of all California residents.

Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) - Applies to any country of organization processing personal information in South Africa.

Kenya Data Protection Act (Kenya DPA) - Applies to the processing of personal data of all subjects residing in Kenya.

Singapore’s Personal Data Protection Act - Applies to the processing of personal data of all subjects residing in Singapore.

Lei Geral de Proteção de Dados (LGPD), or General Data Protection Law in English, applies to the processing of personal data of all subjects residing in Brazil.

Australia’s Privacy Act 1988 - Applies to the processing of personal data of all subjects residing in Australia.

Japan’s Act on the Protection of Personal Information (APPI) - Applies to the processing of personal data of all subjects residing in Japan.

The Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR) and Data Protection Act - Both apply to the processing of personal data of all subjects residing in the United Kingdom.

2. Email marketing software tools won’t allow it

Reputable email marketing tools will not tolerate users who buy email lists. Providers like MailerLite forbid list buying and consider it a violation of the service agreement.

This is because the deliverability quality of email marketing tools is tied to the quality of its users. As users share IP addresses, one person’s mistake of using a bad list can hurt deliverability for the other users. 

If emails end up in the spam folder or ISPs like Gmail and Yahoo flag your emails, the entire group of users will suffer the consequences. What’s more, the creators of these tools don’t want to encourage or be involved in illegal marketing tactics.

To ensure people are following the rules, email tools will monitor user behavior, assess the quality of email addresses you're sending to, and track recipient engagement. If you use a bought list, your email service will find out and you may be blocked from using it.

3. It harms your email deliverability

Ever heard of spam traps? They’re exactly that—fake email accounts set up to catch spammers (and organizations that don’t pay enough attention to the health of their email list). 

These addresses are managed by internet service providers (ISPs) and blocklist providers to catch people sending spam. Being caught sending to one can impact whether your messages reach the inbox.

But these are just one type of low-quality email address that can impact your deliverability. Messages sent to disposable addresses, addresses linked to full inboxes, and addresses that no longer exist will bounce or be ignored. These are signs used by inbox providers to distinguish spam senders from legitimate ones. 

Purchased email lists are full of these low-quality addresses, so sending to bought lists will hurt your sender reputation and email deliverability, causing you a much bigger headache than your purchased list was worth. 

4. Unsolicited emails can ruin your brand reputation

When you send marketing messages to people who didn’t give you permission, it’s spam. You might believe that your content is valuable or even relevant, but the truth is that both global regulations and the people receiving your emails think otherwise. 

Becoming associated with spam will negatively impact your brand value and can even lead to customer complaints. Do you want potential customers to find bad reviews from angry people who received unsolicited emails from you? It’s not a good look!

5. Low return on investment

When was the last time you responded positively to an unsolicited mass email? Probably never. In fact, you probably don’t even see these messages, since inbox providers have become so adept at filtering these messages to the spam or promotions folder. 

Sending messages to bought lists will have the same result. Even if buying a list feels like a cheap way to reach hundreds or thousands of people, the chance of people even seeing (let alone responding to) your messages is exceptionally low.

6. You’ll skew your email engagement metrics

How do you know if your last email marketing campaign was effective? The best way to track your campaign performance is to compare your metrics with previous campaigns sent to the same audience.

Sending a campaign to a newly purchased email list will completely ruin the benchmarks you’ve already set to measure success. Click-through and open rates for an unsolicited email will be far lower than your usual campaign to a targeted audience.

If you mix your current list with email addresses that you just bought, your results will look horrible. Engagement will drop. How will you know if it was the content or the list? Are you willing to see your email campaign metrics tank?

To ensure your campaigns deliver optimal engagement and low bounce rate, you should periodically clean your email list with an email verification tool like MailerCheck.

7. Other marketers are using the same purchased email list

Email list providers can’t make a living selling their email list once. They are going to try to sell those emails to as many people as possible. These salespeople are contacting hundreds and hundreds of people a day.

Can you imagine the frustration and anger of the people on the other side of those email addresses? Chances are they are getting bombarded by unsolicited emails. They won’t be in a happy mind space to receive your cold outreach, and they’ve probably already switched to a new address. 

Your email will be one of many that never get opened. The recipient simply checks all of these spammy emails and moves them to the junk folder. And your email marketing service is likely in the process of blocking your account.

How are “for sale” email address lists built?

Email list vendors will be quick to assure you of the legitimacy of their product, with guarantees that all emails you are purchasing are real and, in some cases, have even opted in to receive your messages. 

Typically, this opt-in will come in the form of an agreement to receive messages from third-party senders. The people building these lists will often use pre-checked checkboxes and vague language that gives the subscriber little idea about what they are signing up for. 

This lack of transparency is why most regulations do not view this as a legitimate type of opt-in, despite what people selling the lists say. 

  • Email harvesting: This is by far the worst method of the bunch. Bots are used to crawl websites, forums, and blogs to scrape email addresses that are packaged up and sold to you. Lovely!

  • Spammy banner ads: You know the kind—those that tell you you’re the lucky winner out of 1,000,000. They’ll ask for your contact information in exchange for a prize and then add your email address straight to a list and sell it.

  • Trade shows: Have you ever been offered a list of emails full of industry experts from X, Y and Z events? These types of lists seem more legit, as they’re supposedly collected from industry events. But just because someone registered and attended an event, it doesn’t mean they’re interested in being contacted by you. 

  • Partner opt-in: Signup forms try to encourage you to subscribe to their updates as well as their “partners’”. They’ll usually give you no choice, or design their forms so that you have to opt out of consenting to third-party communication

Building a targeted email list

The message is clear: Avoid buying email addresses. Now it’s time to shift our focus to building your own list the right way.

To get you started, we’ve included this guide to list-building as well as the top 5 ways to get more subscribers.

Convert website visitors

Converting website visitors is an easy and low-cost marketing strategy to grow your contact list. You can do it by adding forms and pop-ups to your website that ask people to sign up for your email list. 

Increase the chances that people sign up by offering something in return for the email address. 

For example:

  • Create a helpful lead magnet and offer it as a free download

  • Offer people who join your list a discount or free shipping offer

  • Create a webinar or event that people can sign up for

  • Build a free software tool or resource related to your business that people can access with an email

When creating an offer, you must still make it clear that people who add their email addresses are also joining your list. 

You can do this by either adding an opt-in checkbox or by making it clear from the form’s copy that people who hand over their email addresses are also opting into the newsletter. 

Convert social followers

People who follow you on social media may also be interested in joining your email list. The exact strategies you use to convert them will depend on the platform you use, but some common strategies include:

  • Create posts that promote your email list

  • Add links to your subscribe landing page under your other posts

  • Add a subscription link to your profile

  • Send private messages to people asking them to join your list

Like with converting website visitors, it can help to offer potential subscribers a resource or discount in exchange for joining your list. 

Opt in on purchase

Online sellers can let customers opt in to receive marketing content during the checkout process. This lets you contact people who agree with future offers, so you can build loyalty and increase the lifetime value of each buyer. 

Ask for email referrals

People who enjoy your email content may know other people who will also enjoy it. Grow your list by asking subscribers to refer your newsletter to people they know. 

What’s more, you can use email referral software to incentivize people to share your list with others. These tools will automatically track referrals and deliver rewards to people who successfully share your list. 

Use paid social ads

Generating email subscribers with paid ads is one of the quickest ways to grow a good email list at scale. 

While it’s more expensive than buying a list, the quality of the subscribers you will get is incomparable. The reason is that people who click on your ads are still opting in to receive your content, and you can also be extremely granular with the type of people you target. 

Collect subscribers offline

Businesses with an offline presence can collect email addresses from the people they meet at events, their store, their offices, or any other venue. Create an offer to encourage people to opt in, for example, giving a freebie to people who sign up. 

Email marketing works best with a high-quality list

The secret sauce of email marketing is that people have opted in and they want to hear from you. When you buy an email list, you lose this power. Instead, you become another annoying interruption.

Approach your email marketing like you approach your business—with integrity and determination. In the long run, you’ll be in a much better place.

Editor's note: This post was originally published in July 2020 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

What are your favorite tactics to grow your email list? Let us know in the comments!

I’m Duncan, a content writer at MailerCheck. When I’m not diving deep into strategies for improving email deliverability, you’ll find me training for my latest race or out on the soccer field. ⚽