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Help I’ve been trapped! What’s a spam trap anyway?

A spam trap is an email address maintained by an ISP or a trap provider, to detect poor practices in list management, list acquisition and deployment behaviors. Emails sent to these addresses never get opened or clicked-on. Any address on your file that has recent activity associated with it is not a spam trap.

The premise for both ISP’s and trap providers, such as consumer advocates and black list operators that maintain spam traps, is that poor practices are proven once a marketer hits one of those addresses. Severity of response to hitting a spam trap differs based on the operator and type of trap, but in a worst-case scenario, one strike can be detrimental to general delivery either at the specific ISP, or — as is the case with blacklist operators such as Spam Cop and Spamhaus — your email could be blocked universally, especially when multiple hits are detected.

Understanding spam traps is critical to understanding the reasons behind many delivery issues. Detecting spam traps can provide early warning of potential deliverability issues, especially when there have been drastic changes in list management procedure.

However, not all spam traps are created equal.

The two main types of spam traps are pristine traps and recycled traps. Both types monitor email traffic that arrives at inboxes that no one should be mailing to. There is however, a huge difference in how email traffic is attracted to these addresses which should not be confused.

Pristine traps are trap email addresses which were created by the mailbox provider or spam trap provider and have never been a valid subscriber email address. These addresses are hidden across the Internet and in most cases picked up by web scrapers or bots.
Hitting a pristine trap has a significant impact on your reputation and indicates questionable list acquisition practices. Although there is a remote possibility that a typographical error would have caused someone to hit a pristine spam trap, this scenario is highly unlikely.

Email senders hitting a trap from a trusted trap vendor are likely to have an immediate issue with deliverability. Hitting pristine spam traps repeatedly is likely to severely impact or even completely block delivery to any inboxes at one or many ISP or Inbox Providers. This situation is unlikely to get resolved until the list segment containing the trap is identified and removed altogether.

A recycled trap is an email address which at one point in time was a valid recipient; but is no longer active. The address was then reclaimed by the ISP and converted into a trap email address. These traps tend to be abandoned email addresses, where the provider or the previous owner either have turned the addresses over to a trap provider, or the ISP itself has taken the abandoned address and started monitoring traffic to the abandoned address. The idea here is that if an email address has been abandoned for a year, or possibly even longer, no sender with good list hygiene and list management practices would be sending mail to this address.

Hitting a recycled trap address is not as bad as hitting pristine trap, but may still impact your reputation over time.
If you are noticing a large number of recycled trap hits, you should immediately address your list hygiene practices and ensure you are sending to actively engaged subscribers.

The solution tends to be more aggressive list management or list acquisition practices

While not everyone agrees as to how long you should wait until you remove abandoned or inactive addresses we find that depending upon industries and sales cycles, frequency as well as the value of email addresses many senders start to reduce frequency or even stop mailing all together to addresses that have not shown any activity in 3 months. You should consider to do this at least within 6 months of no activity and here is little reason to have anyone on your list that has not reacted to anything you have sent in more than a year, even though there is reduced cadence on the email to this activity segment. Again, situations can be different, but these general guidelines tend to hold for most of our clients.

Since ISP’s are not all equally sensitive to activity levels, some senders have different rules for different ISP’s. Our experience shows that senders who are emailing 30-day active subscribers (opened or clicked within 30 days) and reduce frequency or stop mailing to those that are inactive longer enjoy the highest inbox placement rates, but sometimes that comes at a unacceptable costs in terms of loss of revenue. Email marketing is after all like most marketing practices aimed at maximizing profits, and therefore we need our actions to consider any potential harm to profitability and revenue too strict list management policies can cause.

Understanding spam trap risks and their differences is crucial, both to your ability to diagnose and resolve deliverability problems, and — more importantly — to maintaining list management and mailing practices that prevent these problems.

Lacking detection can cost dearly

Managing potential trap issues also requires a good provider of spam trap data. As of now, only the two largest deliverability companies, eDataSource and Return Path, offer defined trap detection systems that allow senders to see information about both pristine trap hits and recycled trap hits. While homegrown recycled trap detection systems offered by secondary deliverability services may be helpful, and certainly better than nothing, they do not offer any insight into the serious risks caused by hitting pristine spam traps.