Too much information. In my email inbox. That belongs to other people.
February 28, 2014 10:42 PM   Subscribe

About ten years ago I signed up for gmail very early during beta when people were selling invites for up to 3 and 4 figures and lucked out on a very early, short email address. (See profile.) And it's not cool. Not only do I get a lot of spam but I get a lot of misdirected email. I've seen receipts, bank statements, tax returns, boobies, dozens or hundreds of pictures of different families, newborns, weddings, new cars, old cars, flight reservations, money wire recepits. And this isn't good, and I wonder about my liability, and I wonder about these known brands or services that don't include a button for "This is not my account or data." or any email validation step at all.

And I tend to reply to obvious personal accounts where helpful, delete the transient sensitive data, and try to report the more permanent accounts.

I am concerned about a number of things. Legal, tax and judicial liability for these erroneously logged and addressed private data, along with 10+ years of my life.

But there seem to be at least one or two or a few people who are consistently fatfingering my address with theirs, and it seems to be a gmail alias problem as well, with the g.mail (leaving that typo!) alias system where you insert a period in your "" string.

I've almost managed to trace one user, and I wish I could figure out how to contact them to help stop it from happening.

I also apparently have facebook aliases in about a dozen different countries or service zones or something, even though the only time I've willingly signed up for facebook with this email was to try to turn it off, but don't think anyone can do anything about that at this point without a small army or thermonuclear weapons.

I'm mainly concerned about the permanent data, the alias weirdness, being conflated with finances that aren't mine for a variety of valid reasons. I could be compellled to reveal my private email archives in any number of adversarial or financial situations.

How do I mitigate this?

And is there anyone reading that is or knows someone higher up at gmail support? I'm also concerned about what may be a bug in their alias system.

(Pardon any typos, terseness. Thumbyping on an android g1/mytouch keyboard.)
posted by loquacious to Computers & Internet (32 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
are you marking these e/mails as spam?
posted by HuronBob at 10:44 PM on February 28, 2014

I have the same problem, and I'm sorry to report that from what I can tell, there is no solution. Once every couple of months I spend a very awkward afternoon on the phone, calling Visa and AmEx and whatever else and explaining that this isn't my account, and I'd really prefer not to be getting the statements for someone else's stuff, etc, etc. This is met, almost universally, with a staggering degree of suspicion--there's at least one rep every time who suggests that probably the person has the same email address as me. I document that I made the calls, and after calling, I delete all the stuff from [whatever place] that I've accumulated.

I occasionally end up with alternate methods of contact for people who're using my email as their own, and there's been a handful of times that I've contacted people that way. It has been entirely ineffective--I've contacted a good half dozen people either at alternate email addresses or by logging into a blog that they've set up (under my name and email address) and creating a private entry or draft advising them that they've used the wrong email and I have all their login information, and they should definitely change that. The responses have ranged from "uh, so?" to fury that I've hacked "their" email. There's been an upswing in this sort of thing for me in the last few years, and I've come to the conclusion that I've previously dramatically overestimated the tech savviness of the average person. Mitigation is, I'm sorry to say, limited to damage control on your end--aggressively unsubscribing, opting out, and deleting as much improperly directed mail as possible.

The alias system isn't a bug--gmail is designed so that is me, and so is first.last@gmail, and firstlast+words@gmail, and first.last+words@gmail. I find this feature useful, but know that many people find it confusing. Unfortunately, there's no way to disable this.
posted by MeghanC at 10:59 PM on February 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm mainly concerned about the permanent data, the alias weirdness, being conflated with finances that aren't mine for a variety of valid reasons. I could be compellled to reveal my private email archives in any number of adversarial or financial situations.

This is very vague. What permanent data? Who is conflating what? Who will compel you and why? Do you have any real world examples of any of these things happening to other people?
posted by acidic at 11:16 PM on February 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Is there any reason you can't just get a new email address? This sounds really annoying. I switched email addresses a few years ago and it was annoying getting people to switch, but they eventually did. And I still check the old one once in a while in case.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:27 PM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm in the same boat as you (early Gmail user etc.). I've gotten job interview messages, travel plans, confirmation photos, and -- the worst one -- someone's eBay buying and selling notifications. (HOW BADLY is eBay set up that this is possible?) It's appalling to me that so many businesses don't have double opt-in.

That said, this situation seems to be really common--see all the past AskMes about what to do about it. I delete, click the link to disassociate whenever someone tries to connect my email with their other Gmail or whatever, and mark as spam when needed. I can't imagine a scenario in which most of it could cause problems. The exception is the eBay account: I don't know what the heck to do about it but I do find it sort of worrying. (Unfortunately eBay requires me to call them and jump through other hoops, so I haven't.)
posted by wintersweet at 11:47 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've got the same problem to a lesser degree and I don't bother tracking these people down anymore. The only action I take is when one of my dopplegangers signs me up for job search notifications (usually in some place far far away). In which case, because it interferes with my job searches, I'll go into the misconfigured job site and delete my email if it will let me and I'll delete the account if not.

This is a problem completely of their making and trying to fix it from my end unless I get lucky is time consuming, stalkerish and often fruitless.
posted by Mitheral at 12:06 AM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm in exactly the same position (well, minus the boobie pics) and have contacted firms of solicitors, cellphone providers, et al all to tell them that they've sending to/been supplied wtih the wrong email address but to no avail. Now I just hit the delete button and forget about it. It was really hard to start with but gets easier.

AppleTurnover - I have an alternate email address ( because I'm fast at signing up for these things but it seems awfully unfair to the OP to lose the email address they've had for 10 years because of the incompetence of others!
posted by humph at 12:22 AM on March 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's not your responsibility to deal with other people's misdirected mail. Just delete it like you would spam.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:44 AM on March 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

One other thing: Gmail ignores periods entirely. is exactly the same as -- so I think OP is mistaken about there being a problem. Gmail has always worked like this. You can include the periods or not but they all go to the same place.
posted by AppleTurnover at 1:03 AM on March 1, 2014

I have the exact same problem - I don't have a nice "short" email address, but I do have one that's a combination of an initial and a pretty common surname, and looking at my inbox at the moment, I have emails among people of a gardening club in the UK, emails from members of a yacht club in California, some guy in Utah's electricity bill and house insurance bill, and updates from someone's Christian dating service profile.

I've given up trying to do anything about it - I did have success once when I was receiving some pretty serious and sensitive emails from someone's lawyers - I notified them they had the wrong address, they were gracious and thankful and I never heard from them again, but in most of the other cases my responses are ignored or not understood.

I've concluded that it's not my responsibility. If the dude in Salt Lake City is wondering why he's not receiving his power bill, that's his problem to fix. I just aggressively spend time, once a week, unsubscribing from and marking everything as spam.
posted by Jimbob at 1:08 AM on March 1, 2014

Yeah, I have a catch-all domain that's named very similarly to a well-known baking ingredient brand, and I have the same problem. I get company invoices, requests for meetings, and so on -- and after years of the same thing, I've given up trying to educate people as to the correct domain name. For the most repetitive and egregious ones, I just configure it so that they bounce immediately and hope that this means that people eventually learn.
posted by nonspecialist at 1:27 AM on March 1, 2014

I joined gmail early on. Google allowed at least 3, maybe 4 other women to join using my name. I get their spam, email from a man who is not my nephew, notices of choir rehearsal, ads for a market in the UK, and yesterday, I got someone's medical history. TMI! Way too much! I have found no solution for this. I also get a lot of spam addressed to me from stores and people I have never heard of. Filtering has reduced that noxious flow.
posted by Cranberry at 1:40 AM on March 1, 2014

I've had the same problem for years. Again, no easy solution.

I have a canned response I send out to the people who email me by mistake. I unsubscribe from whatever whenever I can.

But I just lost it when some dummy signed up with my email address for THREE BANK ACCOUNTS with this one bank somewhere in the US (I'm in Canada). I spent three hours calling them/talking to reps and then I had to send in an actual letter to their corporate office. Had it not been a bank, I would have hit spam and moved on, but it was a freaking bank and I couldn't ignore the steady flow of mail.

The problem is that it's the modern-day equivalent of the wrong number, only there's not always a way to be able to say "I'm sorry, you've got the wrong email address" the way that we can tell someone that on the phone.

Whoever solves this problem -- for all email services, not just Gmail -- is going to be my hero.
posted by juliebug at 1:44 AM on March 1, 2014

I'm familiar with your pain. Back in the good old days of VAX/VMS email systems, a good friend of mine had an email address which was the college standard where we went to school: the first person with the last name got Everyone after that got their first initial + last He was the first one with his last name in the system! Hooray!

His last name is List.

They wouldn't give him a new email address, no matter how many times he begged and pleaded. A few years later, they finally gave him a new one when the school administration wanted to know why so many people were having issues with their listservs, because people kept sending listserv requests to, and he had long since abandoned the account.

So. I get your pain. I hope you find some resolution soon.
posted by RogueTech at 2:16 AM on March 1, 2014 [34 favorites]

(RogueTech PM'ed me with the above and I begged them to share it. Chatfilter sidebar material, that.)
posted by loquacious at 2:27 AM on March 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

My attempt to get a family to stop sending me e-mail for their aunt Sue has backfired; they've now added my name to the family recipient list (so the e-mail headers contain a “To: Stewart C. Russell <scruss@…>”). You would have through that the twin hints of my first name not being Sue and my family name not matching theirs would have been a hint, but no. I suspect I will be Aunt Sue to this southern family law firm forever.
posted by scruss at 4:45 AM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've contacted a good half dozen people either at alternate email addresses
Apparently my luck has been better. I also have a rather short and easy gmail address, and get the same kind of mail. Some of them are lost causes (STOP signing me up for twitter multiple times!), but I have contacted people by text, usually internationally, and I've gotten nothing but "oh, geez, thanks, let's get that fixed." Please have some hope for humanity!
posted by whatzit at 5:13 AM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was a very earlier mover at all major email services, with a not-common-but-not-exceedingly-rare surname. I get ~5 misdirected emails a week.

My policy is to unsubscribe to any form of commercial mail (75%) and for the balance of business or personal correspondence to write back the sender and say "not the [MattD] you were looking for." The commercial mail unsubscription almost always work (except for the "Orange" cell phone service in England); the "not the [MattD] you were looking for reply" usually works too.

On the truly rare occasion where it seems like a real emergency, I have spent time looking up the correct recipient and getting a message to them -- nothing I'm obliged to do, but a good deed for the universe I guess.
posted by MattD at 5:23 AM on March 1, 2014

This is not a huge problem for me but I have gotten the occasional purchase confirmations for things I didn't buy. I tried politely emailing the companies that they had the wrong email address but I typically continue to get the whole series of purchase confirmation, shipping confirmation, etc. If it continues to the one where I am invited to leave a review of the product etc., I do. And my review consists of how the company cares so little abt customer privacy that I have received multiple emails of someone else's info despite my warning. That is usually the last 'wrong' email I get from that company.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 5:25 AM on March 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

I have the same problem and my username isn't as common as yours. The first time someone sent me computer passwords and bathroom selfies, I freaked out because who knows the legal implications of these things. Stopped worrying fairly soon and deleted or archived the emails.

On a few occasions, I've gotten involved in discussions and work matters that people have emailed me because I'VE TOLD YOUR MANY TIMES THAT I'M NOT THE PERSON YOU THINK I AM SO STOP WITH THE SPAM OK?!

My finest moment? When a major US hospital invited me to their annual staff meeting. I recall trying to hook people up and throwing a tantrum about last year's event and the lack of booze.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 5:36 AM on March 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I too was an early Gmail adoptee get a lot of misdirected email. One time a got a Father's Day dinner invitation to a really nice steakhouse in NY from somebody with the same surname. I emailed him back, thanked him for the invite, and pointed out that his son was going to feel really left out that he never got his invite because it came to me instead. The guy had a sense of humor - he said if I was in NY I was still invited :)

If the email come from a person I'll reply and point out the mistake. Account conformations and other automated stuff just gets deleted.
posted by COD at 5:56 AM on March 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

If there's an obvious way to respond, like an invoice from a law firm, do so. Once. If not, employ the metafilter "FIAMO" (flag it and move on) rule and DIAMO - delete it and move on.

Don't borrow worry. It's their problem to solve.
posted by barnone at 6:18 AM on March 1, 2014

You could try bouncing the email back to the sender. Thunderbird lets you do that I believe.
posted by captaincrouton at 6:44 AM on March 1, 2014

Yeah same thing, I'm first initial - last name at gmail and it's a common last name. I used to think it was all accidental but now I think most of it is people who don't want to enter their real email on a website and they just come up with their first initial and last name @ common email domain as a fake one, and it never occurs to them that this could actually be a real person.

Anyway I mostly just delete it. Marking as spam has no effect, what we really need is a block sender button. See my previous question.

Currently in gmail it's a three-or-four click process to block the sender: go to the "more" menu, then "filter messages like these" > create a filter > check "skip the inbox." This is what I do when a particular sender is getting annoying, and while I cannot imagine there's any kind of potential liability for getting someone's private info accidentally, setting up these filters would create some documentary evidence that you weren't actually seeing it / took affirmative steps not to see it.
posted by pete_22 at 7:28 AM on March 1, 2014

Yeah I'm coming up on 10 years with my Gmail address and I'm getting ready to abandon the account.

I was fine dealing with the accidental order confirmations and the like from the nice lady in Indiana (sent her a snail mail letter letting her know that I was getting sensitive credit info), but there's also a teen girl in Florida who likes Justin Bieber and Neopets who thinks my email address is hers, and a lady in Tennessee whose BABY shares my name and she signs up for all sorts of Disney nonsense with my email.

So my email is in a million website databases and I'm now drowning in spam. I used to go in and unsubscribe as well as change the email address when possible, but there's just too many now. So I'm working on getting all of MY online logins transferred to a different email address and then I'm going to turn off the forwarding feature of my old account and let it sit there and collect spam until the end of time.
posted by elsietheeel at 7:46 AM on March 1, 2014

I'm now very happy that my e-mail account names aren't all this common, apparently.

I think you just need to get another e-mail address, something less easy to mix up with anybody else.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:11 AM on March 1, 2014

it seems to be a gmail alias problem as well, with the g.mail (leaving that typo!) alias system where you insert a period in your "" string.

Not sure what this means, but -- == == (etc). Google/Gmail ignores any periods in the account name, and always has. (It also ignores anything after a plus sign, so == (etc)).
posted by inigo2 at 9:35 AM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I created firstname.lastname@gmail for my daughter fairly recently. Was surprised to get it. She now has firstname lastname penpal friends in 2 other countries. And they STILL sign up to things with her email address.
posted by jacanj at 4:28 PM on March 1, 2014

I went and looked, and I got my gmail account in June, 2004, as part of this effort. It's my - not terribly common, but obviously common enough. I try to grab at sites that seem popular, but that's become a lost cause.

Disney, dating site or other subscription crap - tag as spam. Gmail's quite good about this.
Redbox email with free rentals - thanks.
personal email - 1 or 2 replies saying "Your mail has been misaddressed. This email account,, is not the one you're looking for." then tag as spam.
I just looked at my own bank's email, and there's nothing saying what to do if it's misaddressed. I think it's uncommonly good-natured of you to take the time and trouble to fix somebody else's serious screwups. I think it would be smart of banks to check bounced email messages, but I'll bet few of them do.

I also get mail, mostly credit notices, at my house for people who haven't lived there in years. I throw it out, or if I'm feeling quite energetic, mark it 'not at this address' and put it out for the mail carrier. And I feel pretty much the same way about email. If you can't figure out your email address, you have to deal with the consequences.
posted by theora55 at 8:22 PM on March 1, 2014

Also, roguetech's example is classic - admins can be utter jerks about stuff like this.
posted by theora55 at 8:36 PM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Every damn year I get an invitation in my gmail account for a bunch of rich insurance and bankers annual fishing trip in Alaska, complete with pictures from last years trip. I emailed them the first year but it hasnt stopped them in the subsequent years. One year I might just turn up.
posted by Admira at 8:50 PM on March 1, 2014

I too have this exact problem. I usually just reply with a "wrong email address/I'm not the droid you're looking for" message and it stops.

Except for the professional in DC who manages to continue to add me to all sorts of church events in his name, and the teenage girl who signs me up for stupid websites and uses me as her throwaway. I mark those as spam.

Good luck. It's an endless battle.
posted by schyler523 at 12:02 AM on March 2, 2014

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