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How to Burn Your Reputation with Spam Traps

Rob Schneider
How to Burn Your Reputation with Spam Traps

Send to them. Often. Repeatedly. Repeat. That’s it! You have now successfully burned your reputation with spam traps. Congratulations!

Ok, so I guess marketing wants a more in depth article, so let’s dig in, break it all down and spare the judgement.

What Are Spam Traps? Spam traps are addresses that are designed to catch senders not using best practices. Traps don’t sign up for mail nor do they typically engage with mail. They will accept mail and appear just like normal email addresses. In fact, some are old email addresses that have been recycled into traps (more on that later, don’t get ahead of me). There are literally millions and millions of traps out there, so don’t believe anyone when they say they can clean all the traps from your list.

What Kind of Traps Are There? Generally, there’s two kinds of traps: Recycled and Pristine. Recycled spam traps are the ones I noted earlier where they were used by someone but since that user didn’t log in for a long period of time, it got converted. You know, like you had that address that was funny or cute back in college but when recruiters and HR Managers would need to contact you about getting a job, you’d cringe and try to spell it out in the hopes they can’t put the words together?

Pristine traps (sometimes called honey pots) were specifically designed as a trap and have never been used by anyone. Sometimes these traps might be scattered on random web pages where regular users would not be browsing to. Or they can even be “hidden” in the source code of a websites. Other times, they exist with no references anywhere on the web and are waiting to see what is sent to them.

Who Creates These Traps? Traps are created with the intent of separating the good senders from the bad and the gray areas in between. With that being said, there are a variety of spam trap operators. Mailbox providers like Microsoft or Comcast want to make sure their users get the mail they want and spam traps help them make those decisions. Similarly, companies that sell spam protection like Barracuda like to use them to offer a more robust product offering and aid in their filtering decisions. Then there are the Anti-spam individuals and organizations like SpamHaus, Project Honey Pot or SpamCop that want the world to be a little less spammy.

As of May 30, 2017, Project Honey Pot is currently monitoring over 242 million spam traps:


How Do Spam Traps Work? Traps aren’t fancy and they even look normal. They just accept mail as any other email address does. When a company or mailbox provider decides to convert addresses into recycled traps, the addresses go through an invalidation period. It could be 6 months or a year. Providers don’t generally disclose much information on the timeframes or recycling process. During that invalidation period, whenever mail is sent to that address, it will bounce back with an Invalid code signifying that it’s no longer an active address. As a result, most email providers, Mapp included, will automatically suppress that email address from future sends since it is no longer valid. Once that invalidation period is over, that address will start receiving mail again without a bounce code. From there, the spam trap provider now knows that senders sending to this address are sending to old and unengaged data and not following best practices.

Pristine traps work similarly, but since they were never used by a person, there’s no invalidation period. It just receives mail as soon as it’s set up. Trap providers know, from these types of traps, that the sender is not using organically grown lists, but rather participating in purchased/rented/scraped/harvested/OtherBadThings to get subscribers. And the net result is the same, you probably aren’t using best practices or perhaps, illegal ones.

What Happens When I Hit A Trap?
How’s your Russian Roulette? Truth be told, there’s so many trap providers out there that your damages range from none, as in no noticeable impact, all the way to being blocked at almost every major mailbox provider. However, regardless of where you hit the traps, it gives you some insight into how “clean” your data is. Unfortunately, you can’t tell ahead of time how many traps you’re going to hit or know the impact. But if you hit a big one, you are going to notice and your Email Service Provider might give you a jingle too.

The image below shows actual data from a client hitting spam traps. Every time they hit traps, the amount of filtered mail (mail not making it to the inbox) goes up in relation. When the traps decrease so does the amount of filtering. This would be a more middle of the road or average impact from spam traps, meaning, it can get much worse:

It Can Get Worse, Jailtime Worse. Wait, What? Keep in mind that some of the list acquisition practices like buying, renting or scraping lists may be against the Terms of Service/Acceptable Use Policy with your provider, or in some cases, against the laws in your region. Or it may not the actual buying or scraping but the fact of not having explicit consent can cause quite the dilemma when asked for it. It’s best to check these rules and laws since violating them can get you kicked off a platform without warning or even fined and/or jailed. Yes, all those punishments have actually happened to real people. Granted, these were serious offenders but yes, the quote holds true, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!” Yes, there is.

Uh-oh! I Have Them, How Do I Get Rid Of Them? It’s ok. It happens. We won’t judge you, I mean, out loud anyways. Removing traps is basically like using the Undo feature in Microsoft Office. Start working backwards to see when they showed up and what list acquisitions took place during that time. Often times, it can be traced back to something like importing an old “hot subscribers” list someone found on the network, or someone found a good deal on a purchased/rented list (remember, I said we weren’t judging you…aloud). Or maybe you accidentally sent a blast to everyone in your database instead of your usual active and engaged users.

The fix is to undo that “hot subscribers” list. It’s no longer hot and is only going to get you into hot water with your reputation and mailbox providers. Get rid of it and mark it “hot water subscribers”. If you did an accidental blast to everyone, don’t do that! The one time accidents can usually be recovered from pretty quickly, but it still might leave a small short term sting. As long as you can account for where they originated and how you were able to undo it, it should easily be recoverable.

Did you change your sign up process? Perhaps turned off the Double/Confirmed Opt In? This one usually comes about when the “higher ups” think they need to get more email addresses at any cost. The logic is that the less hurdles to sign someone up, the faster the list grows. While the total subscriber count may increase faster, your almost guaranteed more invalids and significantly higher odds of getting spam traps and ultimately, lower deliverability. Your list quality will suffer. Additionally, using Single Opt In, is a much more difficult case to prove for explicit consent. Depending on your region, you’ll be required to show this explicit consent when asked and if not, the legal ramifications can be quite sticky, so do a simple fix and turn DOI/COI back on.

I Tried Everything And They’re Still There! If you’re still seeing traps on a consistent basis and have tried undoing everything you can think of and you’re only sending to active and engaged users, you may just have to wait it out. It’s possible some nefarious person knows of some trap addresses and signed it up on to your list. Curses you nefariousists! Yes, it’s a word, Webster is wrong. Or the optimist could tell you that someone just made a simple typo on their email address and that little typo was the difference between their email and a trap’s email. Actually, some traps are based on typo domains for common mailbox providers. But since you aren’t using a double opt-in or confirmed opt-in, it’s now part of your world. Yes, it happens and yes, we still aren’t judging you.

In any case, your option here is to wait it out. Remember in the beginning when I said they don’t typically engage with the messages? This is the key to our super secret spam trap busting strategy! We’re going to only email subscribers that have opened and engaged with messages going forward. Say what?? Shhh…we usually charge money for this strategy, so don’t tell my boss. Yes, by sticking to a strategy of sending to subscribers that have only opened and engaged with the message, these traps will eventually fall outside of those parameters and you should see the trap counts go down. That’s it! Just repeat sending to those active and engaged users and your email ecosphere should be peaceful again. Isn’t it nice to know that sending your mail to the people that use it, read it and can benefit from it can also benefit you? It’s like one of those win-win things you hear about!

How Can I Prevent Getting Them Going Forward? Here’s some measures you can take to help prevent traps from getting into your list to begin with. While some are easier than others, implementing any of these should help cut down on the number of traps getting added to your lists:

Honor Invalid/Hard Bounces and Opt-Outs – Most Email Service Providers should do this automatically, but it’s best to confirm.
Double or Confirmed opt-in – requires the user to click on a link that is emailed to them after signing up to confirm their subscription. If they don’t complete this step, they don’t get added. Ideally, this should be the default option for you.
Captcha/ReCaptcha – requires the user to key in some weird looking text or numbers to help prevent automated sign ups from nefariousists (Really, I’m almost sure it’s a word!).
Organic growth – grow your lists with your own marketing. This way you know where they came from and that they are truly interested in your brand.
Do not buy/rent/scrape lists – You don’t know where they came from or how they were obtained and what you don’t know could be detrimental. Plus, how many people got it before you did?
Use a list validation service that will help prevent typos or invalid addresses from submitting the sign up
Super Secret Spam Trap Busting Strategy – send to your users that have opened and engaged with your messages in a reasonable timeframe, say, 180 days.
And by the way, we totally judged you, out loud…on mute, about your spam traps, but we’re glad we can work with you to help resolve them.

FYI, for those that would rather watch a video discussing spam traps, head over to Deliverability.TV on YouTube. There might even be a mustache being featured in the Spamtrap episode (obligatory click-bait):

Episode 006 “Spamtraps and Honeypots“:

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