July 4, 2014

E-mail addressed to me intended for someone else

So you are receiving e-mail in your account that is intended for someone else.  It's bothersome if it was sent to your exact e-mail address.  It's confusing if they are using an address similar to yours differing only by a single character or perhaps capitalization.  It's scary if it was sent to a totally different e-mail address.

So why are you receiving this person's private e-mail, and what can you do about it?

This article is going to explore some of the reasons why you might be receiving e-mail intended for someone else from a slightly more technical point of view.  For Google's simpler overview on the subject you can see:  https://support.google.com/mail/answer/10313?hl=en and for another excellent article see:   http://gmail-miscellany.blogspot.com/2012/08/wrong-email-gmail-dots-issue.html

We will somewhat arbitrarily divide this problem into two cases:  that of receiving e-mail to a similar address as yours, and that of receiving e-mail to a totally different address.

Messages sent to an address similar to your own.

Question:  What's the difference between the following US phone numbers?
  • (123) 456-7890
  • 123-456-7890
  • 123.456.7890
  • 1234567890
Answer:  Nothing.  While the syntax is different, they each represent the same unique phone number owned by a specific individual.

Question:  What's the different between the following Gmail account names?
  • first.last@gmail.com
  • firstlast@gmail.com
  • First.Last@gmail.com
  • firstlast@googlemail.com
Answer:  Nothing.  While the syntax is different, they each represent the same unique e-mail account owned by a specific individual.

There are several differences allowed in the format of a Gmail address that do not actually represent a different account.  This means that an e-mail address can contain any of these syntax differences and it still represents the same unique account.

Gmail ignores dots (periods, full-stops, ".")

Gmail does not treat dots in a GMail address as significant.  That is, first.last@gmail.com is the same address as firstlast@gmail.com or any other combination like f.i.r.s.t.l.a.s.t@gmail.com.  Gmail simply allows users to enter a dot as a convenient word separator, like you add dashes or dots when writing your phone number.  And since Gmail does not allow the creation of duplicate addresses, it's physically impossible for both first.last@gmail.com and firstlast@gmail.com to exist as unique accounts.  Once one form of the address has been created, all other forms will be rejected as a duplicate (the account already exists).

This has always been true since Gmail first was introduced in 2004.  And even then, people were posting about it.
April 30, 2004:  http://www.errorik.com/archive/2004-04.htm
July 17, 2004:  http://itsmygmail.blogspot.com/2004/07/gmail-address-variations.html

Here's the current Gmail help article on the topic of dots in Gmail account names: https://support.google.com/mail/answer/10313?hl=en

Gmail ignores capitalization

Similar to the above, the case of the characters in a Gmail address is not significant.  That is, first.last@gmail.com, First.Last@gmail.com and FIRST.LAST@gmail.com all represent the same account.

As stated in the "Username" section of the article at:  https://support.google.com/accounts/answer/1733224
Username. You will use your username, which will also be your new Gmail address, to sign in to your Google Account. Your username isn’t case sensitive, and you can use letters, numbers, or periods.
Gmail treats @googlemail.com as equivalent to @gmail.com

The domain googlemail.com was used in a few countries (like the United Kingdom and Germany) in the first few years of Gmail.  But no matter which of the two domain names is used in an address, it still represents the same account.  In fact all mail addressed to a @googlemail.com address is delivered to the matching @gmail.com account.

More information about googlemail.com can be found here:  https://support.google.com/mail/answer/159001?hl=en

Why am I getting their e-mail?

So if you own all forms of your address (ignoring dots and case) then why is someone else using your e-mail address?  To start with, they absolutely do not own a duplicate copy of your account using a dot/case variation of your account name.  You already own it and duplicate accounts are not allowed.  They created a different and unique e-mail address.  They probably started with first.last@ and discovered that account was taken.  So they might have added a middle initial giving them first.m.last, or perhaps a number at the end like first.last.56@.  Whatever they added, it resulted in an account with a different name than yours of first.last@.

The problem came when it was time to give someone else their address or use it to register at a web-site.  They remember what they wanted (first.last@) not what they actually created (first.m.last@) and give out or use the wrong address.  The result is that any e-mail sent using that address, is correctly sent to where it was addressed (you).  This means you are receiving those messages which are addressed to you (first.last@) but actually intended for someone else (first.m.last@).

So how do I fix it?

The only way to resolve this problem is to get the other person to realize their error and start using or giving out their correct address.  But given that you don't know who they are or their actual e-mail address this can be hard to accomplish.

Contacting the web-site they used your address on is seldom effective because they typically don't understand the problem and don't want to get involved.  Contacting individual senders may only be helpful if they understand the problem and have another way to contact this other person.

The best option is if one of the messages you receive intended for them has some contact information like a phone number.  You can then call them.  Here are some tips for trying to resolve the issue.
  • Start by expressing concern for their privacy because you have been receiving e-mail that was intended for them.  Listing some senders or web-site names can help prove you really are getting some of their e-mail.
  • Do not be confrontational.  They probably aren't doing this on purpose because most people want to receive the e-mail that is intended for them.
  • The problem started because they don't know their actual e-mail address.  So if you ask them what their address is expect them to say it's the same as yours (perhaps with dot/case differences).  But that doesn't mean it is the same as yours (since that's impossible).  That's the whole problem, they don't know their actual address and are using the wrong one.
  • The easiest way to show them their actual address is to have them click on their picture/avatar and have them read the address from the top/right of the drop-down panel.
  • You can also have them send you an e-mail (yes, they may believe they are sending it to their own address).  The From and Reply-To header fields should contain their actual e-mail address.
With a little patience you can help them figure out their correct e-mail address.  Be sure to remind them to update any web-sites with the correct address as well as notify any contact that may have the wrong address saved.

Messages sent to an address totally different than your own.

The other case is when you receive e-mail addressed to a totally different account than yours.  It may be just slightly different with an extra/missing character or two (for example first.last@ and first.last.56@), or it may be a completely different name which shares nothing in common.

The simplest situation is when your address is in the Bcc field (which means it is hidden) and another address is in the To field.  This is most common for spam messages which are often sent in groups addressed to similar addresses.  One address is in the To field, and the rest in Bcc.  So if you receive spam addressed to someone else, your address was also included but in the Bcc and you can't see it listed.  Receiving such a message does not indicate any sort of delivery problem.

The more complex situation is when someone mistakenly setup forwarding from their account to another account, but much like the dot/case problem above, they forwarded it to an address they thought they owned (but are wrong).  You will often need to look at the full message headers to identify this situation.

To see the full headers of a message, click next to the Reply button and select "Show original" from the drop-down menu.  A new tab will open that will include the full headers of the message.

We will now look at a number of actual headers collected from Gmail help forum posts that demonstrate some of the ways one might get a messages addressed to someone else.  In these examples the actual e-mail addresses have been changed to protect privacy.  We'll use first.last@gmail.com to represent your address, and first.m.last@gmail.com or someone@blahmail.com to represent the address the message was actually sent to.  We'll also throw in a fake sender address and server names to complete the headers.  To save space and simplify the examples, most of the header content will be excluded retaining only the significant parts that prove the forwarding.

Gmail Forwarded To Gmail

Perhaps the simplest and easiest to spot case is when a Gmail account is forwarding to another Gmail account.  This is obvious because Gmail adds X-Forwarded entries to the header documenting the forwarding.
Delivered-To: first.last@gmail.com
X-Forwarded-To: first.last@gmail.com
X-Forwarded-For: first.m.last@gmail.com first.last@gmail.com
Delivered-To: first.m.last@gmail.com
To: <first.m.last@gmail.com>
From: <sender@sourcemail.com>
Headers are read from the bottom (where the To, From, and Subject lines appear) up to the top (where the finally Delivered-To line appears).  So these headers show the message being delivered to the address specified in the To line, then forwarded on to the final destination.

These cases are interesting because Gmail requires e-mail verification while setting up the forwarding.  That means someone with access to the receiver's account had to click a link to accept the forwarding (whether anyone remembers doing it or not).

Other Provider Forwarded To Gmail

Sometimes other providers will insert a record into the headers to show forwarding, but they can be a bit harder to spot that Gmail's X-Forwarding records.  For example:
X-Get-Message-Sender-Via: root.blahmail.com: redirect/forwarder owner someone@blahmail.com -> first.last@gmail.com
But generally, forwarding from other providers to Gmail can be a lot harder to identify because often there is no clear forwarding record added to the headers.  Sometimes the only way to tell is by watching the message progress to the specified server and then suddenly switch to Gmail, as in this example.  There may not even be a Delivered-To entry to show it arrive at the specified address.
Delivered-To: first.last@gmail.com
Received: from gateway.blahmail.com ([])
        by mx.google.com with ESMTPS id s1si20675769
        for <first.last@gmail.com>
        Thu, 29 May 2014 05:58:16 -0700 (PDT)
Received: from host.sourcemail.com (host.sourcemail.com []
        by gateway.blahmail.com (Postfix) with ESMTP id 8063E660000
        for <someone@blahmail.com>; Thu, 29 May 2014 07:57:36 -0500 (CDT)
To: someone@blahmail.com
From: sender@sourcemail.com
So the message progresses from the sender's server (host.sourcemail.com) to the receiver's server (gateway.blahmail.com) destined for someone@blahmail.com and then suddenly switches to the Google server (mx.google.com) destined for first.last@gmail.com when the forwarding re-directed it.  There could be a Delivered-To entry in there, but, like the case above, there may not be one.

Server Forwarded To Gmail

Sometimes the forwarding can take place as the server level as it possible with Google Apps accounts.  In this case the forwarding takes place when the message arrives on the destination server, but before it is delivered to the specified address.  Similar to the above, the message can suddenly change direction without any signs of a Delivered-To entry.
Delivered-To: first.last@gmail.com
Received: by mail-pa0-f51.google.com with SMTP id kq14so4423283
        for <first.last@gmail.com>; Fri, 09 May 2014 06:19:23 -0700 (PDT)
Received: from server.sourcemail.com (server.sourcemail.com. [])
        by mx.google.com with ESMTP id px17si1832577
        for <someone@blahmail.com>;
        Fri, 09 May 2014 06:19:23 -0700 (PDT)
To: someone@blahmail.com
From: sender@sourcemail.com
In this case blahmail.com is a Google Apps domain.  The message is re-directed just like account forwarding, but there is no forwarding in the account.  It's actually defined at the server level.  There are no X-Forwarded records since it never got to the account to be forwarded.  This is common with Google Apps for Education accounts.

The key here is that it was received by Google servers for someone@blahmail.com before being redirected to first.last@gmail.com.  Since Gmail always adds X-Forwarded records, that meant the forwarding was done before it reached an account.  In this case the server forwarding was confirmed by the poster once the probable cause was pointed out.

Use Of Bcc

Just to round out the header examples, here's a case where the Bcc header was used.
Delivered-To: first.last@gmail.com
Received: from server.sourcemail.com (server.sourcemail.com. [])
        by mx.google.com with ESMTPS id cw6si22943103
        for <first.last@gmail.com>
        Thu, 03 Jul 2014 00:16:29 -0700 (PDT)
From: <sender@sourcemail.com>
To: <first.m.last@gmail.com>
In this case there are no other servers involved because the message was sent directly to the final account (no forwarding involved).  It's confusing because of the different address in the To field and the fact that there is no indication of all the other recipient addresses.

It's interesting to note that this specific example included an empty Bcc record which acts as a sort of hint or indicator that there are additional hidden recipients.  But there is no guarantee that and empty Bcc record will always appear in the headers.

Fetching Instead Of Forwarding

There is one other rare case to consider because sometimes the path of messages doesn't involve forwarding at all as in this example:
Delivered-To: first.last@gmail.com
X-Gmail-Fetch-Info: first.m.last@gmail.com 1 smtp.gmail.com 995 first.m.last
Delivered-To: first.m.last@gmail.com
To: <first.m.last@gmail.com>
From: sender@sourcemail.com
In this case the message was properly delivered, but then was fetched by the final destination using POP3 (Settings->Accounts->Check mail using POP3).  What made this case interesting is that the user didn't remember setting up the POP3 fetching and so was surprised to be getting e-mail addressed to a different account name.

Alternate Reply Address

One final case to mention is the use of an alternate reply address in the message someone might send.  In Gmail it's specified in Settings->Accounts->Send Mail As.  So a person may send a message from first.m.last@ with a reply address set as first.last@.  So when the receiver replies, the message goes where it is addressed:  first.last@.

The difficulty with this is there is no way for you as the receiver of the message (intended for someone else) to know what happened because it's correctly addressed and delivered to you.  The only way to identify this case would be to see the headers of the original message that was replied to.  There may be a Sender or Return-Path line in the header showing the actual sender while the From line shows the alternate reply address.
Delivered-To: someone@blahmail.com
Return-Path: <first.m.last@gmail.com>
Sender: first.m.last@gmail.com
From: <first.last@gmail.com>
To: <someone@blahmail.com>
The only reason this may come up is if you reply to someone@ telling them of the wrong address and they respond that all they did is reply to the message they received.  What would be the hint of what is going on if you chose to investigate.


So what does it all mean?

First, you can be confident that every message in your account was addressed and properly delivered to your account (or perhaps fetched from another account).  There are no delivery errors.  That does not mean the message was intended for you, just that it was addressed and delivered to you.

Second, you can be confident that no one has the same account name as yours (including caps or dots).  If you receive a message intended for someone else but addressed to you it is because someone gave out or used the wrong address.

Third, it may take some work to figure out just how the message got to your account.  It's easy if they accidentally used your exact address or a similar address (dots, caps) in error.  It's clear such messages will be delivered to your account.  But it will probably take a study of the full headers to identify the cause (forwarding, fetching, Bcc) when the e-mail address is different than yours.

Finally, you can also be sure that while you do appear to be receiving someone else's e-mail because they are using your address in error, they are not receiving your e-mail.  Your e-mail is still addressed to and delivered to your account as normal - it cannot arrive in someone else's account unless it is address to their (different) e-mail address.

So don't panic if you receive e-mail intended for someone else.  The e-mail system didn't make a mistake delivering it to you, although some person may have made a mistake addressing or forwarding it to you.