What Is an Email Honeypot and How To Avoid It

Email honeypots

There are always two sides to a coin and spam traps are not an exception. They can help you filter your own inbox messages but at the same time prevent your marketing emails from reaching your target audience. In this article, we will discuss in detail what exactly email honeypots are and explain how to avoid them.

What is an email honeypot?

The word “honeypot” can be quite deceptive: it has nothing to do with honey or bees. Email honeypots are traps created to fight spammers or senders with poor contact management practices. Spam traps are generally used by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and by other organizations such as those setting up blacklists.

In concrete terms, a honeypot is an email address that looks like a legitimate email address but is not used by a real user. As a result, we can assume that users that send emails to these addresses are either spammers, simply didn’t clean their list of contacts or, which is worse, bought their email lists. Overall, email honeypot is a good solution for fighting spambots.

Email honeypot vs. Spam trap — are they the same?

The terms honeypot and spam trap are often used as synonyms. They are close but not quite the same. 

Spam traps

Imagine email addresses that were once real legitimate and active. They were then blocked by ISPs or email services following a long period of inactivity. If you try to send an email to these addresses you most probably will receive an error message that can be classified as a soft bounce. Unfortunately, some of these addresses can be reactivated as spam traps. Spam traps are quite easy to determine compared to honeypots. After a clean-up of your lists, simply remove the risky addresses.

Honeypots

These email addresses were designed by ISPs, or (more typically) anti-spam services such as Spamhaus specifically to trap spammers. By using one of these emails, you will immediately be considered a spammer because there’s no way you could’ve got them legitimately. You no longer be able to send emails, your IP and domain name will be blocked by the ISPs. It will be very complicated to prove your good intentions after being caught and you may be blacklisted forever.

The problem with honeypots is how to identify them. You have no guarantees that you will never fall into this trap even if you have never spammed. Although it sounds very intimidating, don’t get spooked! We will explain below how email honeypots appear on email lists and provide tips on how to fight against them.

How honeypot email addresses get on to email lists

There are several ways honeypots can sneak into your email lists:

  1. Purchased email lists

Buying email lists is always a bad idea.

First, you are explicitly violating GDPR compliance that states that you must get consent from a user to be allowed to send them emails. This is possible only when a user opts in personally to subscribe to your emails. 

Secondly, when you buy a list, the contacts are almost certainly not from your target audience, it’s usually a random group of people. And a cherry on the top is that bought lists frequently contain honeypots or other “shady” email addresses that can get you penalized by ISP and anti-spam services and ruin your reputation. 

Email lists of high quality are never sold. If it’s up for sale, that indicates that the email addresses have previously been rejected as inactive or unsuitable for outreach marketing. Instead, use more “healthy” tricks to build your email lists using our guide on how to build email lists

Again, by purchasing lists you are choosing the wrong path to attract your audience which will almost always result in a ruined sender reputation or a company-wide blocklist. 

  1. Software that scrapes email addresses

This sort of software “crawls” webpages for email addresses and then collects the stolen addresses into a mailing list. This approach looks like a cheap and quick way to grow your email list, but it may be detrimental to your business and is not an efficient or even a legal way to establish a quality prospect database. You can get hundreds of addresses using this approach, but you won’t get the most important thing: authorization. 

You should be well aware of the risks linked to email scraping as it is illegal in some countries, let alone being bad for business. There are a lot of compliance regulations that penalize email scraping: GDPR for Europe, Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) in the United States, Spam Act in Australia and Anti-Spam Law (CASL) in Canada.

The risks of getting into this trap

The risks associated with spam traps are real. 

In addition to sending emails that cost you money to useless addresses, you will also damage your reputation and deliverability. ISPs “rate” IP and domain names using state-of-the-art algorithms and decide whether they can be trusted or not. Simply put, this “score” will directly affect your deliverability: deliver your emails in inbox, in spam folder, or no longer receive them at all.

Indeed, by using these so-called risky email addresses, you expose yourself to a blocking of your campaigns, which can be temporary or even permanent. 

What’s more, Google goes further by assigning an internal rating to domain names for its search optimization algorithm. It crosses several data including the reputation of the domain name as email senders. Spam alerts could have a direct impact on your website’s SEO. Read special guidelines created by Google to create better emails and increase your email performance.

How to avoid getting caught in an email honeytraps

Fortunately, there are many ways to avoid spam traps. To do this, apply good email practices by following this list of things to do and not to do.

Never buy email lists

Even if you want to quickly expand your email lists, lists on sale contain spam traps and this method is highly likely to compromise your emailing strategy. Instead, develop your list organically and ensure that you obtain the consent of each of your contacts, in accordance with current regulations.

There is a more prominent way to generate your contact list organically – use opt-in email lists instead! How to do it? 

You can create outstanding lead generation campaigns, create gated assets that contain high-quality content and promote it on your different communication channels. Just shift a focus from outbound marketing to the inbound marketing strategy whose primary focus is brand value creation and its transmission to potential clients. You will see a positive change right away by receiving more opt-ins for your content.

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Monitor your email deliverability

Monitoring the deliverability of your emails allows you to spot possible issues like getting marked as spam, being blacklisted, etc., so you can prevent them. To check if you have become a victim of honeypots, you need to see how many of your emails were delivered and how many were hard bounced. 

Then try to understand the reasons: it can be because the recipient’s address is invalid or wrong or the recipient’s server bans emails from your domain that can signify that you got caught by a honeypot. It is crucial to regularly monitor hard bounces, investigate the possible causes and update your email lists, otherwise you can get banned for life.

It’s a sad fact that most email marketers discover they’ve fallen victim to a spam trap only after their deliverability rates drop. You can check your status before it happens using tools like Windows Smart Network Data Services, Return Path’s Sender Score tool, or ProjectHoneyPot.org.

Sending email through an email service provider (ESP) also helps. For example, as an ESP, Selzy:

  • Checks the reputation of our IP addresses and technical domains.
  • Follows email authentication standards like DKIM, DMARC, and SPF.
  • Suspends a campaign if some emails got blocked to help you avoid exacerbating the situation.
  • Automatically stops sending emails to recipients who marked previous emails as spam or unsubscribed.

Use double opt-in

When new subscribers sign up to your contact list, ask them to enter their email address and then click on a confirmation link sent to the email address. This is called double opt-in and it allows you not only to ensure that the address entered is correct but also that the user is real and wants to receive your communications.

Confirmation email
An example of a confirmation email. Source: Really Good Emails

Clean your email

Carry out the “list hygiene” sessions ideally 2 to 4 times a year. Make sure your list is up-to-date with correct email addresses and subscribers who have recently interacted with your emails. If you send emails once a week, you can delete contacts who have not opened your messages in the last 3 to 6 months. If you send emails once a day, you should either delete contacts that have not opened one in a month or try to wake up dormant users by creating a re-engagement email campaign

At Selzy, we can make the process of cleaning your email list easy as pie. All you need to do is to go to “Contacts” in your personal account, then find “Tools” and choose the “List hygiene” option. 

Check a more detailed description of Selzy’s “List hygiene” feature.

The final thoughts

Honeypots can be a big challenge for your email campaigns but you can mitigate the risks of falling into this trap by taking the following measures:

  1. Never buy email lists. Remember that the shortest and quickest solutions are usually riskier and less effective in the long run. 
  2. Monitor your email deliverability. Hard bounces can be an alert on becoming honeypot-trapped.
  3. Use double opt-ins. It’s always better to be safe than sorry afterwards. Double opt-ins effectively defend against incorrect email addresses, and bots or spam.
  4. Maintain list hygiene. Keep your email listing updated and get rid of “junk” addresses once in a while. Use advanced and user-friendly tools as Selzy email marketing platform.

Have you ever got trapped in a honeypot? Share your experience.

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