dealing with misdirected email
July 25, 2009 1:59 PM   Subscribe

Misdirected emails -- what to do about them, and can they have any impact on me beyond annoyance?

Being moderately early in the game, I have mylastname @ gmail. One consequence I didn't anticipate when signing up for this address is that I get a certain amount of misdirected email when people meant to put an initial before my last name. Because the name isn't too common, most of this I can easily ignore or reply to, depending on how important it seems to the recipient (though if anyone has a clever suggestion about how to make this stop, I'd welcome it).

A new twist on this recently occurred, however. Someone used this email to sign up for 9 or so "free trial" type accounts in places ranging in legit-ness from netflix/emusic, to "the income accelerator" and "dealmax". (I'm leaving links out on purpose because these places seem pretty shady.) Included in some of the emails is language such as "The e-mail address that you entered when you enrolled (MYLASTNAME@GMAIL.COM) is your electronic signature and constitutes your written authorization to debit your account." The person's first name and other identifying information are consistent across all these emails.

My question is two-fold: (i) should I do anything about this, and similar situations that might happen, in terms of trying to contact this person? I don't have an email address but I can see what seems to be the right facebook account (based on the identifying information in these emails), and I even have a phone number from one of them. (ii) How can I ensure that I never, ever have a business relation with the more shady of these organizations? Is it safe to just ignore this? Presumably if they have any bank/cc information it is this other person, and they have no way to get mine. Ideally I would like to never even get emails from these organizations, though, and never appear on their radar in my actual identity. This "dealmax" thing in particular has a definite reputation on the internet for unauthorized bank/cc charges.
posted by advil to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have the same problem with one of my email addresses. If it is an auto generated email or mailing list, I delete it. If it is a personal email (whoa, I get some of those), I have a small template that says:

Dear (Sender),

I am not the Chillmost you are looking for. I think the intended Chillmost's address is

The Other Chillmost

After I did this a few times, it seemed to decrease in frequency, I think because the other chillmost went around and corrected his email where it was entered and notified his friends.
posted by chillmost at 2:10 PM on July 25, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks chillmost...that is roughly my normal strategy. I guess a much more concise way of asking the question is, will this strategy come back to bite me in some way for the more shady of these misdirected "free trial" things (which fall into the auto generated category)? I take it you haven't had any problems?
posted by advil at 2:24 PM on July 25, 2009

Advil, I am trying to look at this in two ways:

1. Since YOUR email address was entered, could that bind YOU to any of these contracts/services that someone else signed up for and you want nothing to do with. Could Dealmax come to you looking for payment?

2. With regard to any potential problems for the person who intended to sign up for Dealmax, etc., and entered your email address by mistake, do YOU have any obligations or actions you should take on their behalf w/r/t the situation?

As to the first, I think if you did not give these companies your checking account info you are probably safe. It might be wise to respond to each email with a form letter like "This notice was sent to my email address of x by mistake. I did not sign up with your service using that email address, and do not wish to have any business relationship with you. I authorize no debits of any kind". On the other hand, is it at all possible that these are just fishing, spam companies trying to find out what email addresses are "live ones" and hoping for a response so they can spam the hell out of you?

With regard to 2, I think you are fine - I don't see any way you could be responsible for that. Not your problem.

Not legal advice, just my thoughts.
posted by bunnycup at 2:33 PM on July 25, 2009

What chillmost said. If it looks like an honest mistake I reply to tell them they've got the wrong guy. It probably takes no more than 15 seconds of my life, and I'd want someone to do the same for me.

As a practical example, I recently got a message telling me that Uncle Bob had passed away (I've never had an Uncle Bob). And though that's the sort of news better delivered in person or by phone, it's also something that the sender would certainly like to ensure reached the right person.

That said, I've also gotten some clever spam that seems to prey on such kindness. If you reply, the spammer will know there's a potential spamee at that address. If the mail seems coherent, is sent to just one recipient and addresses the other person by name, it's probably legit.
posted by tomwheeler at 2:37 PM on July 25, 2009

I have this with one of my emails. THe other "Gunn" is across the country I found out. That person seemed nice so when I get something I think is important, I forward it. Ocassionally I will redirect the sender, but never a mailing list or anything like that. Only if it is a clearly personal sender. I then suggest that they mean the other Gunn and spell is with the one letter difference Capitalized. I have had a few nice emails and thanks from the other one so I think it has been worth it.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 2:40 PM on July 25, 2009

Looking at the clarification you just posted, I'd add that I don't tend to get auto-generated messages intended for others. If I did get messages from DealMax or similar outfits, I'd probably just delete them. If they persisted, I'd probably just configure my spam filter to delete any message from that address upon arrival.

Thoughtful companies have systems in place to verify the e-mail that you give them (e.g. by making you reply to something they send you). Although it would be better to try and unsubscribe, messages from companies that don't try to verify address in the first place probably can't be trusted to handle not to spam you in the future.
posted by tomwheeler at 2:44 PM on July 25, 2009

Google has a great filter feature, use it.
posted by fifilaru at 3:08 PM on July 25, 2009

If it's unsolicited email, it's spam. Use the report spam feature.
posted by reptile at 3:35 PM on July 25, 2009

I get a lot of email intended for some guy who, I'm pretty sure, doesn't actually know his own email address. E.g., messages from his bank account, from American Airlines' frequent flyer service, etc. This really isn't the sort of thing you'd throw a fake email address into just to keep them from bothering you, this is information that you would want to have! So I'm guessing that the guy just doesn't know his own email address somehow. Our names aren't similar enough for this to be a simple typo, and how could you make that mistake so many times anyway?

I forward all of them to the "abuse" address on the various companies' websites, in the hopes that someone will contact the dude via phone or letter. I don't know anything else about this guy, luckily the companies involved never sent me his address or phone number or anything else personally identifying.

For your situation, I would mostly do the same... forward the messages to "abuse" or whatever customer service address you can find on the *legitimate* websites. For the spamtastic stuff like DealMax, just delete it and flag as Spam.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 3:38 PM on July 25, 2009

I have the same problem. I used to try and do something but I no longer bother. It doesn't stop. I would not mark it as spam because that likely trains the spam filters to recognize legit mail. Spam is unsolicited bulk mail, not just unsolicited mail.
posted by chairface at 4:04 PM on July 25, 2009

You can also use the canned response feature of google labs, so you can send something like Chillmost's response with a click... that in conjunction with filtering by sender which is very easy to set up will reduce the time you spend on this.

You could add a little disclaimer about not being responsible for any commercial / account related business sent to you in error. I have a little haiku that's a bit less friendly than Chillmosts suggestion, but most of the stuff I get in error is from businesses that ought to know better.
posted by dirm at 4:16 PM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do keep an eye on your various bank and credit accounts. A while ago I got a couple of e-mails from Blockbuster and eMusic, thanking me for signing up. I ignored them, assuming they were spam, until a couple of weeks later when I checked my bank account online and discovered charges from Blockbuster as well as from some company that, when Googled, yielded lots of scam accusations (some get-rich-quick website). Someone had actually used my debit card number, name, AND e-mail address to sign up for these accounts. I have no idea why signing ME up for a Blockbuster account would be a theft technique, but there you have it. I assume some online store accidentally leaked my information and this was some automated way for the thief to determine whether my information was legitimate.

Anyway, don't want to freak you out unnecessarily, but it's something to keep in mind. In addition to keeping an eye on your bank accounts, you might also want to change your e-mail password. And you could try logging into the accounts (using the "I forgot my login info" feature) to see if you can find out any information. (Maybe this is a bad idea? I don't know.)
posted by pluckemin at 6:21 PM on July 25, 2009

Someone was using my main email address as a spam dump Fortunately the guy had just switched the name and domain (his email was mine was

For a while I'd log into these registrations and change the email address to his proper email address, but it didn't stop.

I collected the registrations and sent him an email with something like "Hi. I'm the human with the email address at It seems that the following emails have been sent to me by mistake." Then copied the most embarrassing of the various services, scams, porn sites, etc that he had signed up for. I think I added "You might want to change your passwords too since I get all that email too."*

I never heard back from him, but he never used it again.

* Don't know if I'd include that now since it would make me a prime suspect if anyone stole his identity. Maybe mention that he might want to be more careful since it could give strangers access to personal info.
posted by Ookseer at 8:16 PM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have the same problem. I got one of the first gmail invites way back then, and I have a pretty common firstnamefirstinitial@gmail. I get a lot of people who think they own that -- at least one forgot password email a week. To the misdirected personal email, I typically send out a variation of the email Chillmost's uses. Once however, I got really annoyed when someone used my email to sign up with a free blogging service, then got several forgot password emails sent. I was sent the username and password multiple times, so I went and put up a blog post about how they used the wrong email and I had access to their site... funny, I never heard from them again. The "best" mistake however was this 92 year old women in Florida who thought I was her granddaughter. I corrected her, but she still wanted me to have her forwards because I sounded nice and she thought they were beautiful poems or whatnot and they should be shared. I'm not about to discourage any 92 year old person to not use email or technology of any sort, so I just let her send the forwards to me as well. It's not too many, it's not a big deal to delete, so there's no harm done.
posted by cgg at 11:19 PM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm so glad to hear that other people have similar problems! I have someone who completely does not know her own email address and I've been trying to get it fixed for years - for the first couple years I started replying to emails that were clearly from her friends ("I'm sorry to hear your mother died, but I am totally not the person you're looking for - I have no idea who you are or who she is - but there's some confusion with her email. Can you reach her some other way and let her know? Condolences, once again." Um... awkward!) begging them to please call her and ask her to correct it. I think we have the same first name - and my email is my first name @ gmail so hey, it's an easy mistake, but this has been going on for years. How someone cannot be missing this volume of email is beyond me, but she still signs up for things under my email address. What I can't seem to figure out is what her ACTUAL email address is! I've just stopped trying and delete most of it. As of today her friends are trying to get together for lunch next week. If I were a cruel person I could really make some trouble here.
posted by marylynn at 11:24 AM on July 26, 2009

I also have the same problem with my e-mail account. Sometimes people have actually gotten belligerent when I correct them, insisting that I'm the one that's confused -- other times people say thanks and never send me a message again. Thus far I've been able to discern that my chief name doppelgangers are in Omaha and San Diego (I'm pretty sure the Omaha one recently got married and changed her name, thus the new spew of e-mails).

To head off more spam I usually log into web services (like StumbleUpon, Livejournal, etc.) with the account activation info I receive and deactivate the accounts (or unsubscribe). I haven't had any financial account e-mails, though, so I'm sorry to say I don't know what I would do in that situation.

That said, somehow I was added to an ultra-Mormon women's group mailing list, and those e-mails are often the best part of my morning -- hilarious AND educational! LDS secrets revealed! I hope to get those e-mails forever.
posted by Maarika at 4:37 PM on July 26, 2009

I frequently get email intended for a Famous Scientist, in some cases including details which would allow me to pick up his air tickets and sleep for a night in hotels booked for him. I reply "much as I'd like to visit Spokane, WA..." or whatever it is, "I think you've got the wrong guy".

All joking aside, if it happens often enough, it must be because the person's somehow got me in their auto-complete list, as in, they type "Amb" into Outlook and my address pops up.

I point this out to them and say "your life will be easier if you can delete my address from that auto-complete list, please talk to your helpdesk about how to do this" etc.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:17 PM on July 26, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! I guess a lot of people have this problem in some form or other. It seems like the consensus is that I can ignore anything without likely repercussions, and send to abuse (or other contact) to get them to stop. I did get emusic to cancel that account (since I already have an emusic account that I might want to switch to that email some day), though I'm not sure they understood the problem. I looked a little bit into whether I could get netflix to do the same, but I couldn't even figure out how to contact them as a non-member.

If dealmax et al try to do anything beyond sending me annoying emails (most of which it looks like google is already filtering without my input) I'll post an update.

One clarification:

Someone had actually used my debit card number, name, AND e-mail address to sign up for these accounts.

In this case it is luckily clear that the person being signed up for the accounts is not me; I have a name, address, and phone number for someone in california. I do wonder if this was some weird form of harassment aimed at that person, though. Looking at my spam box I can see that this person was signed up for a lot more really spammy stuff than I'd initially realized, thanks to google's good filtering.
posted by advil at 1:49 PM on July 30, 2009

A little bit late here, advil, but Netflix's customer service number is 1.866.716.0414. Open 24 hours. This call comes in fairly regularly, so just tell the rep someone's using your email by mistake, and they should be able to take care of it. I'd suggest specifically asking the rep to disable the email address in the system, so even if you get somebody new/clueless on the phone, they'll know the right procedure to follow.
posted by maqsarian at 1:40 PM on July 31, 2009

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