Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Depending on how careful you've been about posting public information about yourself, an email address can lead people to find a lot about you.

I was on craigslist & posted an ad about possibly meeting up with someone. So some guy & I chatted back & forth about meeting up. But than a day or 2 later when I never got back to him to hang out. I basically blew him off because I rethought the idea on meeting someone over the web because he wouldn't send a photo of himself also his wife was out of town, so he could possibly hook up with people while she was around. He was calling me out saying I'm a fraud for not showing up to hang out and that he wants to report me to the police for messing up his day off. But the only way of contact he has is my email, is there anyway I can be tracked just from my email? When my email doesn't have any info on what my home address or phone number is? Also I was thinking what if i just delete that email address? If it's deleted he won't be able to keep sending messages to me threatening to be reported?

I'm glad you rethought what you were doing.

The short answer is that yes, it's quite possible you could be found by just your email address. It could be very easy, or it could be nearly impossible. Exactly how difficult it might be depends on how you've used your email address and what information you've put in public places.

Oh, and whether or not you've broken the law.

You might start by searching for your email address on the internet. (Most search engines don't let you search for your exact email address, treating "@" and "." as if they were spaces, but it's a start - especially if your email address is unique). Now realize that anything you find associated with your email address is something that anyone can find if they're trying to track you down.

The worst case would be something like a standard "name and address" listing:

"... anything you find associated with your email address is something that anyone can find if they're trying to track you down."
Your Name
Your Email address
Your Physical address
Your Phone number

If you've posted, or allowed to be posted, information like that, then absolutely anyone can quickly and easily find you.

In fact, the person you're talking to knows several other things about you besides your email address:

  • Your name (unless you took care to hide it, which I assume you did not)

  • Your general location (since I assume you were looking to meet someone in your own general area)

Combine those and it's more data for someone to go on.

Something people overlook a lot are social networking sites. Not just the big sites like MySpace and Facebook, but other niche sites as well. With any of the information above (typically name and city are enough), there's often a lot of information visible to the public. Once again, log out of any social media sites you happen to be a member of, and now search for yourself with just name and city and see what information is available to just anyone.

As it turns out the questioner had a fairly unique email address which he (apparently) also uses as a "handle" on assorted sites. That in turn lead me to a city on Long Island, New York where I suspect he lives, his age and a MySpace link. That, in turn, lead to photos, what I suspect is his real first name, his high school, and the fact that he had logged in to his MySpace account today.

That's about 5 minutes of work with just an email address. I'm sure that a more dedicated searcher could turn up more.

You get the idea - the real concern is not what can people find, but rather how easy you've made it for them to find things.

One common piece of advice is to use a "throw-away" email address when placing craigslist ads, or for that matter on any social connection site where the contact could eventually lead to meeting new people. The throw-away account should be completely unique, unrelated to you, and should be created with completely made-up information. That way at least the casual searchers such as myself will find very little from just the email address.

But what about the not-so-casual searchers?

Even a throw-away email address may not be bullet proof if you've broken the law.

I'm no lawyer, but it doesn't sound like you've done anything illegal, so this might not apply to you, but it's worth knowing.

Just like IP address tracing, which I've talked about a lot here, it's possible that in the course of investigating a crime the authorities could approach the email service that you've used for your throw-away account with a court order to get additional information - like the IP address or other characteristics of the computer or location from which you created the account. That could potentially be used to locate you. It's not something done lightly, but if the crime warrants it, it's certainly possible.

My bottom line advice? Well, I'd avoid using random classified ads to meet people, but if you must, make up a completely fake throw-away email account to use for it.

Article C3874 - September 21, 2009 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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13 Comments
Mike
September 21, 2009 8:19 PM

I think it's an absolute hoot that this cretin thinks he can get her in trouble with the law for messing up his day off. Since when has "standing someone up" been illegal?
OTOH, if this fellow keeps it up, HE could be in heap big trouble with the law. Harassment? Stalking? Yep, those things are illegal. If he makes some other kind of threat, he could be in trouble for that, too.
This article doesn't belong on "Ask Leo!" It belongs on Randy Cassingham's "THIS is TRUE". The guy's a total obliviot.

Ralph
September 22, 2009 8:35 AM

First I must say I thought it was hilarious that the person was going to call the police on the other for ruining his day.

I wish I could do that when someone ruins my day

Other than that Leo one thing you should mention in this article is that many of the free email providers show the ip address of the sender in the headers. So if the person you emailed has this they can potentially get a lot of information if they key it in at arin.net. Possibly where you work if that is listed on the record. Also if they do a tracert that can give them some info too. So even if you have a totally anonymous free throwaway email you still can share info to someone who is really looking.

True, although as I've written many times, IP tracing isn't nearly what people think it is. The average person can get very little useful information (though law enforcement, of course, can).
Leo
23-Sep-2009

Linda
September 22, 2009 8:39 AM

Leo, you always have great things to list!

I have a "generic" email address for signing up on new sites/downloads/etc - fake personal info is listed. Even more private - have a PO Box to use online for ordering, etc.

I'm wondering when she found out he had a wife - in time not to meet (that's why she didn't), or if before, why would she agree to meet him? From the wording in her email, he's an adulterous control freak, my guess - possible future stalker.

Mark
September 22, 2009 9:05 AM

Another site that makes it very easy to track people, if you have a name, is Zabasearch. Even if you have taken pains to hide your location, Zabasearch uses public records to display your home address and home phone number. Very scary...

Pam
September 22, 2009 9:10 AM

OMG, threatening to report someone to the police because he listened to his intuition and didn't hang out with this, what, narcissistic sociopath???

I'd consider writing back the question submitter and telling him to 1. document everything that happened including the threats made by Mr Sociopath. 2. Talk to the police about everything Mr Sociopath said and did - not necessarily file a complaint, but tell the police what happened so they know what Mr Sociopath is up to. 3. Stop using Criagslist for meet-ups because there are way too many sickos there. Instead, start interacting with real people IRL and learn how to watch their faces and body language to see what they're real intentions are. Aka, communicate with people over a period of time before ever again agreeing to meet up with them in person.

Remember, bullies get a sick thrill out of hurting other people. If they're targeting us, we can try ignoring them, not giving them that thrill - be ''boring prey'' and see if they go away. If they won't leave us alone, we need to hit them back hard enough by, ie, involving the police, to get them to stop harassing us.

The easiest way to deal with bullies is to simply stay off their radar in the first place. Stop responding to Craigslist personals.

RhondaLea
September 22, 2009 9:13 AM

Linda,

Although the original query is not entirely clear, the response makes it obvious: the person asking the question is not a woman but a man.

Steve
September 22, 2009 9:46 AM

Still hard to imagine that someone is going to meet another, without knowing anything about them- but do know that they are already married. Where are your morals? If you were married, would you like someone fooling around with your spouse?

There are so many creeps, stalkers, murderers out there, why would anyone take a chance?!?

Yes, I know, this is 2009... but tragidies happen every day. Some can be prevented with a thinking ahead.

Holly Cow
September 22, 2009 11:30 AM

I agree with Mike. Plenty of people had stood me up before. The police would be really busy if standing someone up is illegal.

Vincent Cahill
September 22, 2009 11:56 AM

Zabasearch only works for US addresses.
pipl.com can track you down for any postings you ever made on the internet using any of the following searches- Your name, your username, your email address or your phone number.
People really need to wise up on what they post about themselves on the web.
That photo of you falling over drunk at a Christmas party will not be so funny when a prospective employer finds it before your interview.

Bill
September 22, 2009 12:01 PM

I am in agreement with Linda about the possibility that he may be a stalker.

Quite frankly, I would pass the messages from him on to the police. Even though they are not a physical threat, they are a threat and it is a thin line with some of these people between stupid threats (unless you did something illegal, the police will laugh at him) and physical. His frustration (especially if the police laugh at him) could push him over the edge.

Roger Green
September 22, 2009 12:48 PM

I am not a Police Officer but I am employed by a Law Enforcement Agency, and if it was not for recommending you avoid that individual, I would call his bluff...Then tell him if he's married you will stop by the house with the Police and explain to her what he's been doing and saying along with a restraining order to show your appreciation.

I have a hard time taunting someone of this ilk. Seems like this is simply asking for more trouble.
Leo
23-Sep-2009

Gus Rego
September 22, 2009 12:52 PM

From what I got out of it, it was two men. One talking to the other about "hanging out". Since his wife was out of town (innocently assuming its just a guys night out). No one can sue you or report you for not "hanging out" with them. But the email address question is pretty cool. I found a lot about me by googling my name. LOL

Ralph
September 24, 2009 6:51 AM

True, although as I've written many times, IP tracing isn't nearly what people think it is. The average person can get very little useful information (though law enforcement, of course, can).


23-Sep-2009

Most of the time IP tracing will turn up nothing. I remember probably about five years ago when there was a high number of people still using AOL dialup an IP address wouldn't tell anything. Other than that they were using AOL.
However now it seems most home users are using dsl or cable modems. Doing tracert on an IP gives somewhat of a geographic location of the user in some cases. Also in the chance that the person being anonymous is surfing from work and their company is big enough to have a record in arin then someone could find out where they work. However I agree without a supena(sp) from laf enfocement it is imposible to get just who it is by iptracing. The two things they might be able to get would be workplace(if person emailed from there) or general location. Possibly what city and not much more than that. More than likly this information would be totally useless, but if the potential stalker already knows something about their victim it could be a problem.

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