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The Ultimate Spam Trap Survival Guide: How to Stay Out of Spam

Email geeks, we see all the hard work you put into your email marketing campaigns. Once you have a great idea, there’s the copywriting, the design work, the coding, the endless back-and-forth editing, and then finally, the operational side of pulling lists or behavioral triggers and actually pressing, “Send.”

It’s a lot of work. Yet your beautiful email campaign may never actually reach the inbox. In fact, 70% of emails show at least one spam-related issue that could keep them from reaching the inbox. 😭

Email deliverability is a complicated, technical beast. While there are a few best practices that are tried-and-true to improve your deliverability (please, please don’t buy an email list!) it can be difficult to know what went wrong. While many factors affect your deliverability, spam traps are one of the biggest and most misunderstood of them all.

What is a spam trap?

Spam traps are commonly used by inbox providers and blocklist providers to catch malicious senders, but quite often, legitimate senders with poor data hygiene or acquisition practices end up on the radar as well.

A spam trap looks like a real email address, but it doesn’t belong to a real person nor is it used for any kind of communication. Its only purpose is to identify spammers and senders not utilizing proper list hygiene. 

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Once you’ve cleaned your list of spam traps, make sure your email actually reaches your subscribers’ inbox. Run a Spam Test to identify issues before you send.


Why should you care about spam traps?

If you’re thinking, “I’m not a spammer, so I don’t have to worry about it,” hold up. 🖐️

You might already send email to spam traps…and not even know about it. Depending on the type of trap, having even one spam trap on your mailing list can significantly impact your ability to get your emails into the inboxes of your subscribers. We’ll talk more about the different kinds of traps in a moment.

The bottom line is: If you’re sending emails to spam traps, anti-spam organizations and inbox providers think you’re a spammer. It doesn’t matter whether you really are or not.

That’s because it’s considered an indicator that you’ve used bad practices to collect email addresses—or at the very least, you didn’t do a good job of keeping your list clean. This could cause your IP address or your domain to be list denied and damage your sender reputation. All this means if you’re sending emails inadvertently to spam traps, your emails may not be delivered to subscribers’ inboxes.

The 3 types of spam traps you need to worry about 

Not all spam traps are created equal. While triggering any of these spam traps will impact your deliverability, some cause more damage than others. You’ll want to watch out for:

  • Pristine traps are email addresses that are published on public websites, but hidden so a normal user would never see them. The only people who find and send to those addresses are the people who use bad collection processes, like scraping the web for everything that looks like an email address. If you obtained addresses by scraping them from web pages—or bought a list, which often include scraped email addresses—you may have picked up a pristine spam trap.
  • Recycled traps are email addresses that were used by real people in the past, became abandoned, and at some point were converted into a trap by the inbox provider. When an email is not used anymore, inbox providers will deactivate it after a certain time. Whenever someone sends an email to this address, the inbox provider returns a hard bounce, which is a signal to the sender to please remove this email address from the list. Responsible senders honor this request and delete bouncing addresses, but some folks ignore this protocol and continue to email these addresses. Turning abandoned email addresses into spam traps is the ISP’s response to irresponsible senders. After some time, the abandoned address won’t return a hard bounce anymore—but is now an active spam trap that marks everyone sending emails to it as a misbehaving sender.
  • Invalid email addresses can also be used by ISPs as spam traps. This is most commonly done with email addresses that have typos. Think common typos like “gnail,” instead of Gmail or “yaho,” instead of Yahoo. While misspelled domain names (the section of the email address after the @) are more common for spam traps, you can also get caught with a misspelled username (the section of the email address before the @). Are some of these typos just typos? Of course. This happens all the time. But since they’re invalid email addresses, they should be cleaned off your list regardless.

These are the most common spam traps out there, though there are more. What do all three have in common though? Issues with your email list.

5 ways to avoid spam traps

The answer to avoiding spam traps lies in your email list hygiene.

Spam traps are designed to identify senders with irresponsible list-building techniques, so you won’t find a public list of traps that you can delete from your list to solve the problem.

The only way of finding and deleting them is to take a close look at your list quality in general. Here are a few ways you can avoid spam traps in the future:

1. Manage your inactive subscribers

Spam traps don’t belong to real people, so they typically won’t behave like an engaged subscriber. Most spam traps won’t show engagement like clicks or opens. If you actively manage your inactive subscribers, you’ll likely get rid of your spam traps, too. Chronically inactive subscribers aren’t of any value to your campaigns and some of these addresses are at risk of being converted into dead address spam traps. 

Be wary of holding onto these addresses for too long.

In fact, we recommend running a campaign that asks existing inactive subscribers to reconfirm their interest in your messages is another strategy to separate engaged subscribers from those who don’t confirm (and might be spam traps). 

This example from Readymag is crystal clear. It gives subscribers an easy way to let you know they’re a human:

Source: Really Good Emails

This two-column design is another great example from Cuisinart:

Source: Really Good Emails

Be upfront about it—and if they don’t engage with your final attempt, channel your inner Elsa and let them gooooo.

2. Pay attention to bounce notifications

There are two types of bounces that occur when you send emails: Hard bounces and soft bounces. 

  • Hard bounces mean an email address is no longer valid or that you’ve been blocked by the recipient, so remove those from your list right away before they cause an issue with your deliverability.
  • A soft bounce may occur for a few reasons, like a temporary issue such as a full inbox or that your email is too large. You don’t have to remove those emails just yet but definitely pay attention to any soft bounces. If it happens too many times, you’re better off removing them.

Add any of these bounced email addresses to a suppression list to make sure you don’t reacquire the same address or accidentally send it again.

3. Use a double opt-in list-building strategy

Even if you managed to identify the traps and delete them from your list, you’ve only treated the symptom, not the cause. You need to understand how the spam traps made it to your list in the first place and fix your list-building strategy to prevent further spam traps. 

If you’re worried about your deliverability, it’s time to switch to a double opt-in for your list acquisition. A double opt-in process means that a new subscriber signs up for your email list in the usual way (say, at the form at the bottom of your website, or by checking your opt-in box as they purchase something for the first time) and then must confirm their subscription in their first email. 

Opt-in emails don’t have to be fancy. Many of them are automatically generated by ESPs and look something like this:

But you can be creative with it, like this one from Recess:

Source: Really Good Emails

You can easily work in subscription confirmation emails into your welcome or onboarding email flow. If you’re not sure where to start, check out our free email template library here.

Does it add an extra step for subscribers? Yes. Does that mean you may lose out on some confirmations? Also yes. But if you’re struggling to land emails in the inbox, a high subscriber count won’t mean anything. It’s much better to have fewer subscribers who actually engage with your emails and want to hear from you than a large list of inactive, possible spam traps in terms of your overall email program.

And we’re just going to say this one more time for the people in the back: Don’t ever, ever buy an email list.

4. Validate new email addresses

Use an address validation tool on your enrollment page to catch typos and non-existing email addresses before they make it to your mailing list. In this way, you can clean your email list before you ever send an email to a spam trap or an invalid address by accident.

It’s also a good idea to do a regular check-up of your overall deliverability infrastructure, like checking for blocklists, and re-upping your domain authentication like DMARC, DKIM, SPF, BIMI…yup, allll the acronyms. You’ll also want to check to make sure your email content doesn’t trip any regular spam filters. That way at least you can rule out a few more deliverability-related issues if you’re having trouble making it to the inbox. (Pssst…we can help with that.)

5. Set up a regular cadence of email list cleaning

Keeping spam traps off your email list requires constant vigilance. In the same way that you regularly schedule dentist and doctor’s appointments, do the same for your email list. Set aside time each quarter to do some email list hygiene.

Generally, traps will appear in either your most recent signups, or in your oldest inactive segments, so make sure you focus on both angles to keep spam traps off your list. Doing so on a regular basis should help keep your email list fresh and clean.

Make it to the inbox, not the spam folder

Litmus Spam Testing helps you identify issues that may land your emails in the spam folder—with contextual advice to fix deliverability problems before you send. Say goodbye to spam traps for good!

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Kayla Voigt

Kayla Voigt

Kayla Voigt is a freelance writer