There’s something lurking out there, in the corners of the email marketing world, that scares a lot of people: the Spam Trap.

They’re scary because most people don’t really understand how spam traps work or how common they are. While it’s impossible to avoid them entirely, good data hygiene may limit exposure. Unsolicited email isn’t spam – but if you send cold email, you’ll want take precautions to avoid spam traps.

What is a spam trap?

A spam trap is a valid, deliverable email address used exclusively to receive unsolicited email. Spam traps usually look just like normal email addresses, making them impossible to visually identify. They’re responsible for keeping spam out of our inboxes, and for that we should all be thankful.

The purpose of a spam trap is to identify spammers and senders with poor emailing practices. But sometimes spam traps find their way onto the email list of a legitimate sender by way of bad data hygiene, and the consequences can be severe: Senders may find a significant drop in email deliverability, and entire domains may be blacklisted … preventing even operational or one-on-one correspondence with customers and prospects.

Spam traps don’t just catch spammers: They can catch the good guys, too. Campaign Monitor agrees that even good email marketers can get caught. Litmus said when it comes to spam traps, legitimate senders can end up on the radar as well. And BriteVerify talks about a client who adhered to best practices by the book when building IP and domain reputation. They ended up hitting a spam trap too.

When companies conduct cold email campaigns, it’s possible they’ll hit a spam trap. It happens to nefarious spammers, it can happen to marketers following best practices with the cleanest data, and it can even happen to teams. It’s the nature of the business. Data providers, email verification tools, and email marketers can minimize the possibility of hitting a spam trap, but they cannot completely eliminate the risks.

Read It: 8 Great Cold Email Examples

So what’s a legitimate email campaign to do?

To make sure you never hit a spam trap, Hubspot suggests only sending to opt-in contacts and to avoid purchasing data from a data provider.

Great idea! … unless you want to generate new leads and increase sales.

Outbound campaigns are the key to growth in the B2B world, and every sales and marketing team has to leverage data to be successful. So the first step in dealing with spam traps is to realize that they aren’t entirely avoidable. Choosing to conduct outbound campaigns automatically increases the risk that you hit a spam trap.

To mitigate risk, let’s learn a little bit more about how they work.

Types of spam traps

Today, there are two major types of spam traps used by corporations: pure spam traps and recycled spam traps.

Pure or “pristine” spam traps

1. Fake address for real person

Pure spam traps, also called pristine spam traps, are set up for the whole purpose of attracting spammers. Let’s say your CEO’s name is Henry Schuck and your email formula is <[email protected]>. You could create the inbox for <[email protected]> as a spam trap (assuming that anyone who had a legitimate reason for emailing Henry would send an email to <[email protected]>) and mark all incoming mail to that address as spam. Companies often plant spam traps like <[email protected]> in corners of the internet, luring web scrapers into emailing to their trap.

DiscoverOrg doesn’t scrape data from these types of websites for this very reason.

2. Real address for fake person

Companies looking to thwart spammers have gone as far as to create a fake social profile, setting up an inbox for that fake person as trap – and then reporting any company that emails that inbox. This identifies people who are emailing someone they don’t know; however, this practice casts a broad net, since there are many legitimate reasons to email people you don’t know.

Recycled email spam traps

Another type of spam trap is a recycled email address. Some companies take the emails of departed employees and convert those email addresses into spam traps. Marketers who purchase old lists or use data that isn’t regularly cleaned are particularly susceptible to these types of traps. It’s important to know that all types of marketers are susceptible to these types of spam traps, because even a company’s own customer accounts can recycle addresses and convert them to spam traps.

How to avoid spam traps

Q: I want to do absolutely everything I can to avoid a spam trap! Eek! What can I do?

A: It’s impossible to completely eliminate this risk, but there are steps you can take to minimize it:

1. Always make sure you’re working with the most up-to-date data possible.

When searching for best practices in avoiding spam traps, many authorities recommend sending to only the most recent lists. DiscoverOrg has industry-leading data quality and contact refresh rates (90 days). For anyone sending unsolicited email, our data is far and away the best option for avoiding spam traps.

Purchased lists are not up-to-date. They can be really, really old. The bounce rates you get won’t be pleasant, either, so we highly recommend staying away from static contact lists. However, even if you’re a DiscoverOrg subscriber, the work’s not over. Sending to a list that you pulled from DiscoverOrg last month is a bad idea. Our researchers are continually cleaning our database – updating 35,000 fields per week, on average. If you aren’t running your list through DiscoverOrg before a send, you’re asking for a higher bounce rate and are susceptible to spam traps.

2. Clean out inactive contacts in your CRM and marketing automation tool.

If someone hasn’t opened, clicked, or responded to an email of yours after 15 consecutive campaigns, you probably want to suspend all emails to that contact. They are at risk for being converted to a recycled spam trap. Most marketing automation platforms have filters that enable you to remove contacts from email sends that have not had any activity within a recent time period.

3. If necessary, use email verification services.

Some of the most popular tools that DiscoverOrg has evaluated for various projects include solutions offered by Informatica, BriteVerify, Kickbox, NeverBounce, XVerify, Webbula, and ImpressionWise. (Here’s a good top-10 list of email verification services.) Keep in mind that all of these companies provide very similar services because each are using similar methods using the same type of technology.

What’s even more frustrating is that spam traps will pass email verification because they are actual inboxes. Simply detecting a valid inbox via email verification does nothing to reduce the likelihood of hitting a spam trap. It takes several more levels of checks to sniff out spam traps.

Email verification for avoiding spam

Email verification services can mark emails as being at a higher-risk of being a spam trap. Be careful, though, because these services are not a complete solution to your problems, for two reasons:

  1. They don’t actually know which emails are spam traps.
  2. These types of services often classify an address as “potentially dangerous” just because it was on a list that contained a spam trap. For example, let’s say there’s a list online of 1,000 marketing professionals, and your email address is on it. Now let’s say a company emails everyone on that list and gets notified that the email hit a spam trap. Your email address would also get tagged as “potentially dangerous” because it was on a list that contained a spam trap. In reality, though, your email is perfectly fine, and you’re definitely not a fake person (at least, I hope not!).

Using verification tools decreases the odds that you hit a spam trap, but it also decreases your addressable market and potential – because you’re avoiding the inclusion of many valid emails in your campaigns. The answer is “proceed with caution.”

How DiscoverOrg thwarts spam traps

At DiscoverOrg, we also check the direct phone number for all contacts, and perform additional web research to confirm employment. This level of care significantly reduces the likelihood that a spam trap exists in our database because we typically know when someone leaves their job within 90 days.

Is it possible to hit a spam trap using DiscoverOrg data? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. It’s possible to hit a spam trap emailing a list of customers in your CRM.

What does DiscoverOrg do to make sure you don’t hit a spam trap? Every email address that we enter into our database is first checked by Informatica’s email verification tool (formerly known as StrikeIron). Informatica alerts our researchers to potentially dangerous email addresses before they are entered. When this happens, our researchers get on the phone to verify these email addresses with someone at the company before entering it into our platform. Then, as part of our continual 60-day refresh period, we send a market research survey to every contact in our database (who hasn’t opted out).

Spam traps don’t opt out. And if we hit a spam trap, we know about it.

The bad news is, there are no guarantees in the marketing world. The good news? By following best practices and exercising a little caution, you can avoid the spam trap.


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Derek Smith
About the author

Derek Smith

Derek was DiscoverOrg’s first researcher in 2007 and now a decade later he’s responsible for the processes and technologies that DiscoverOrg’s research team uses to create and update the data in our industry-leading sales intelligence platform.