Spamtraps: should you care?


I believe that spamtraps – for the professional marketer – are scare tactics that are no longer relevant. a professional marketer

I’ve talked about spamtraps in the past. I’ve described a number of different types of spamtraps and what they tell the trap maintainer about a sender’s practices. One thing I think the professional marketer above is missing is that spamtraps are not really about scaring senders.
Spamtraps tell recipients and trap owners that some of the emails on a list are not going to people who asked for the mail. What’s mail a recipient didn’t ask for? Most people call it spam.
It’s important to realize that the traps are not the disease. Traps are the symptom. I’ve already mentioned that it’s sometimes difficult for senders to accept that their mail is unsolicited (or forgettable).
Traps are relevant, because if there are spamtraps on a list, then some part of your list is not who the sender thinks it is. Some of that mail is going to people who think it is spam. Mail sent to spamtraps belies the statement “we don’t sent spam.”

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  • Between 27th Oct and 2nd Nov I had a client blacklisted by through a SORBS spamtrap. In fact they blacklsited a full IP range. When I took the investigation, my client had the full audit trail to show that the recipient was signed-up 15 months ago, was telephone verified and had pretty much every possible permission and privacy practice ticked.
    My client sends to highly targeted segments, and this recipient was part of a group of people who had not been emailed since they originally signed-up.
    Rather than just assume that permission and prefs were still valid, they performed a prefs re-engagement campaign, and just to say hi. To minimise risk they batches up the data into batches of a few thousand. One of the batches hit an address which had ceased to be active and been converted into a spamtrap in the time it had been on the list. Because no emails had been sent in that time, no bounce code was received before it was converted into a spam trap.
    I am not saying that my client is perfect, but what they had in place was not a bad plan.
    Apart from doing the re-engagement / refresh campaigns more often or occassionally sending to the whole list, there is not a great deal which could have been done to avoid the trap + blacklist.
    Spamtraps do not always equal spammer.

  • Steve Henderson: I’m not a defender of SORBS. However, I have a large private spamtrap collection — a bunch of domains and email addresses that have been managed according to best practices. Those require that spamtraps whose previous history the spamtrap owner doesn’t know be disabled and reject all email for a period of at least twelve consecutive months. This is to allow legitimate bulk email sources to see the bounces and remove those email addresses from their lists.
    From what you tell me, the list that your client emailed had not been contacted for fifteen months. Given that set of circumstances, you could have hit one of my spamtraps too. I don’t work for SORBS, but I do feed information to other blacklists and reputation services. What would have saved you in that case is that I don’t report any single spamtrap hit as confirmed spam, even when the circumstances leave me sure beyond a reasonably doubt that it was spam. However, I might have blogged about it.
    So ask yourself: *why* are you emailing such old lists? Most deliverability people that I know (including our host and hostess on this blog) recommend strongly against emailing lists that are more than a year old. The reasons include what just happened to you, and what could have happened even when dealing with an antispammer who dots all the i’s and crosses all the t’s with their spamtraps.
    In my (not so) humble opinion, you do need to do re-engagement/refresh campaigns on a regular basis if your list doesn’t normally get mailed at least once every six months. For the limited number of bulk email lists that I subscribe to, I prefer to hear from them more frequently than that so that I won’t forget I asked for the email — preferably once every month to every three months. That way, your recipients remember who you are and have the chance to unsubscribe easily at regular intervals if they aren’t interested any more.
    If a company or an ESP came to me with a situation like yours after I’d blogged about an email that hit my spamtraps, I’d like to think that I’d be reasonable. But do you really want to have to rely on an overworked volunteer blacklister to be reasonable as your strategy for staying off of blacklists? If I were in your line of work, I would not.
    Please think about it. 🙂

  • If people are using legitimate email addresses that legitimately opted in and verified details, they should be required to have a log of which lists they opted in to. You are just asking to hurt legit mailers.
    To say the mailers need to keep emailing just to see if the addresses are active is silly. I only want email with real content. I respect people more when they respect my inbox.

  • Forget about SORBS, for a moment. I have no insight into their spamtrap policies. But I do know about Spamhaus, Comcast, Road Runner, AOL and many other ISPs, how they handle spamtraps.
    If you’re mailing “legitimate email addresses that legitimately opted-in and verified details” for years and years with never any weeding out of non-responding users, you’re going to hit spamtraps. Period. Legitimate spamtraps, in the eye of the blacklist maintainer or ISP.
    You can cry about that, but crying doesn’t improve your deliverability. Implementing an engagement-based subscriber lifecycle strategy is a much more successful way to improve your deliverability and ditch spamtraps.

  • We are talking about small margins here. Had they performed this exercise in the summer they would have been fine as the bounced address was only converted to a spam trap recently. Had my client hit 5 Hotmail spamtraps it would have been fine (threshold of 1 per million).
    Email someone in the summer=fine. Email them in the autumn=spammer? Is email *really* as precise and unambiguous as that?
    Well, no it isn’t. AOL can deactivate an account in as little as 30 days, Yahoo after 4 months, GMAIL and Hotmail both after 9 months of inactivity. After that you would then expect a bounce code to be returned for 6-12 months, giving ample time for marketers to remove them before they are converted into a trap.
    That is not precise. It is also not published clearly anywhere, so how is a normal marketer supposed to know what to do?
    ..and Al, at what point did I say anything to warrant that response?

  • Not every email address abandoned at an ISP turns into a spamtrap. In fact, there are a lot of addresses that aren’t. And not every abandoned address is actually deactivated, either. I don’t log into my AOL test account for months at a time, but it’s never been taken away from me. I don’t log into one of my yahoo accounts regularly, but it’s never been taken away from me. I’ve had a hotmail account since 1997 or so and have gone months without logging into it, and it’s still mine. I take that as absolute proof that just not logging into an account means the ISP takes it away from you.
    The point of this post is that having traps on your list is telling you important things about your email marketing program. It is one of the very early indicators of future delivery problems. Senders who ignore the signs eventually end up with delivery problems. It’s much easier to fix an email marketing program sooner rather than later.

  • Hi Laura, I could not agree more with your sentiment. My initial post was in direct to reply to your closing statement: “Mail sent to spamtraps belies the statement ‘we don’t sent spam.'”
    Spamtraps, may equal email sender who is not perfect, who will suffer delivery problems. But that does not mean that they are a spammer, sending unsolicited bulk email.

  • I disagree Steve. A spamtrap *is* a sign that a sender is sending unsolicited bulk email. The mail was not solicited by the person who owns the address. Even more important, some of those addresses might be owned by actual other people, who never signed up for your mail.
    If you’re sending to spamtraps, then it is a given that you are sending mail to people who never opted in to receive your mail. It doesn’t really matter that the address has changed hands (and is either a spamtrap or another user). It’s unsolicited to that person.

  • Hi Laura.
    There are marketers in the real world who need to improve aspects of their data collection, hygiene and list management processes. They are not all Spammers illegally sending unsolictied bulk email.
    The statements “if you hit a spamtrap you are a spammer. “, “it is a given that you are sending mail to people who never opted in to receive your mail” and “Mail sent to spamtraps belies the statement we don’t sent spam.” are too black and white.
    Spam is illegal and Spammers are criminal. Let’s not mess about with words here. Calling someone a spammer is inflamitory.
    Spamtraps *are* very very bad, but normal marketers who do most things right can still hit spamtraps by not cleaning data correctly, processing bounces correctly (which is not easy for some people when every ISP and domain sends different variations of bounce codes and messages), or from using data which has not been used for 12-18months (again, this changes from domain to domain, so where is the standard for normal marketers to follow?)

  • There’s the difference, Steve. I do not believe spam is illegal and I do not believe all spammers are criminal. The fact that they’re sending mail to people who didn’t ask for it is a failing, and one they need to fix.

  • Yeah. Where is spam illegal? For better or worse, not in the USA. Some types of spam and some spam practices are illegal, but “unsolicited commercial email” is not flat out prohibited.

  • It is an EU directive so make Spam illegal, but individual member countries are free to interpret those directives how they see fit.
    Spam is illegal in the UK (The Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003)and most other European countries, but not all. Italy for example has very strict anti-spam laws and quite severe penalties.

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