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

Both children and adults can receive harassing or abusive email. Sadly there's no easy way to trace it back to a sender who doesn't want to be found.

My son has been receiving harassing e-mails that is sent to his yahoo account and on Facebook. How do I find out the IP and where and who they are coming from?

Whoops. If you're here via the link in the April 5th newsletter, that link was incorrect - it should be: Why do some programs say to "disable anti-virus" before installing, and should I turn it on again after?

Sorry for the confusion.

I think it's kind of frightening how often I get questions like this one.

The sad reality is that the answer for most people is very, very simple:

You don't.

So what can you do?

Each time I write on this topic I'm immediately flooded with even more requests similar to this one that indicate that folks have simply missed the point of the article. I don't mean to be rude or obnoxious, but I need to be excruciatingly clear at the outset:

You cannot trace the origin of email to an individual, an address or in most cases, even to a specific computer. If there's any hope at all, it requires the involvement of the police or other law enforcement.

If the sender of an email does not want to be identified, and if the email does not clearly identify who it's from then there's no way for you as the recipient of that email to trace it back to the person that sent it.

And yes in many ways, to put it bluntly, that sucks. Anonymous email certainly has its uses, but harassing people shouldn't be one of them. And yet, here we are.

"Your best bet may, in fact, be to use methods unrelated to the email..."

For true email, there are sometimes clues in the email headers that you typically don't see. In my earlier article How can I trace where email came from? I give a brief overview of what those headers look like and what information might be gleaned from them. (Applications like Facebook aren't really "true" email, and don't have these headers. As far as I can tell there's nothing available to message recipients on Facebook or other social media sites that could be used in a similar way to email headers.)

Using email headers you can sometimes determine the "name" of the computer sending the email, and its internet IP address. Many times the email is sent using web services like Hotmail or GMail, in which case that information doesn't apply to the user, but rather to Hotmail's or GMail's own servers. Sometimes the services will include the internet IP address of the machine that actually visited the web site to send the mail.

But even if you're "lucky" enough to get that information, that's still not enough.

In another earlier article, Can I get someone's name and address from their IP address? the answer is clearly "no", at least not without the help of law enforcement. An IP address actually tells you very little about the real world location of the machine (or machines!) that it represents. At best you can usually locate the ISP responsible for allocating that IP address to actual users.

But once you get that far, you'll need help.

And that's where law enforcement comes in. Their response will vary depending on the seriousness of the charge, how seriously they take these types of issues in general, their own expertise in the area and of course their own workload.

Based on my own experience with the sheer number of requests I get on this topic, I can only imagine that an already overworked justice system is going to be hard pressed to give you any satisfaction. Your best bet may, in fact, be to use methods unrelated to the email, such as your son's school's social structure and dynamics - perhaps with the aid of the staff there - to determine who might be responsible.

And at the risk of offending with redundancy, I have to reiterate:

You cannot trace the origin of email to an individual, an address or in most cases, even to a specific computer. If there's any hope at all, it requires the involvement of the police or other law enforcement.

Article C3333 - March 27, 2008 « »

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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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12 Comments
Dan Ullman
March 27, 2008 12:29 PM

It has been years since I used Facebook but at one time you could not send a message to the user without being signed in yourself. If that is still the case sending a message to the folks who ride herd on the Acceptable Use Policy should result in some action.

Margaret Louk
March 28, 2008 6:31 PM

Hi: I would suggest that families that wish to get involved in social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace get a separate email address just for that purpose. That way if the email becomes offensive then close it and set up another. Also complain to the sites managers. We had a problem with MySpace when somebody set up an account in our name with false info. While I do not like the site, a number of relatives are on it so I set up a separate email account and then set up an account with no picture. I still get weird emails but it is manageable. Parents need to let their kids know that what they put out there can come back to them later.

Mike Williams
March 28, 2008 8:36 PM

All of Leo's comments are true enough, when it comes to a typical email sent by a typical person. But it gets worse if the person has some expertise. There are all sorts of ways to edit the headers of the emails that you send so they appear to come from a totally different IP address, different source email address, etc. So even if the recipient could trace the IP address, he can't be sure that what he reads in the header is true in the first place. Also, even for people without the expertise to do this kind of misdirection on their own, there are plenty of web-based forwarding services that will hide your identity for you, and many of them don't keep any records so police involvement will be useless. So it really is a long shot to hope to trace emails back to the source.

Jake Smith
March 28, 2008 10:22 PM

A simple solution is to change email address. Delete the old one, get a new one which does not include your name, and let only those from whom you wish to correspond know the new address. Also, use an address which has more than alphabet characters, such as knot232head45@isp.com

Justin
December 5, 2008 10:48 AM

So if someone lets say calls you dirty names or spreads your business around on facebook or myspace and they are not threatnign you but just causing you to look bad to others or make profiles of you but nothing bad then they can not be tracked?

I am not a lawyer, but as I understand it they can be tracked - maybe - only if they've done something illegal.
- Leo
06-Dec-2008

Ralph S
June 13, 2010 12:23 AM

My life is currently being disrupted (over the last 2 or 3 months) by someone sending email and text through an anonymous re-mailer that is coming out of italy I think (mixmaster.it is the domain) Is there any way at all to get the feds or someone else involved? probably not. long story short I have lost 1 friend and another is on the verge because of this, The person is using my name to send these messages. It looks like from what I see above that the answer is no, I am looking for even a glimmer of hope.
The actual emails that I have gotten trace back to a couple of free wi-fi locations according to the tools I could find on the internet, and the computer name seems to change in every one. The Text messages that hit my phone show as coming from a 5 digit number when I look at the history in my bill but I have no idea what to do with that. I see this thread is a couple of years old. Are there any new developments that might help in this situation? Thanks if you can answer if not I won't take it personally :)

The only approach remains contacting the authorities.
Leo
13-Jun-2010

cindy rumlow
June 16, 2010 5:25 PM

I was getting harassing texts and was lead to believe nothing could be done. Then, I spoke with my sister who knew of an incident at her daughter's school involving harassing texts. The principal told the parent to involve authorities. This is what I found online:
It's illegal to annoy
A new federal law states that when you annoy someone on the Internet, you must disclose your identity. Here's the relevant language.

"Whoever...utilizes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by the Internet... without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person...who receives the communications...shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both

I'm going to our local authorities in the morning! You bet I'll do what I can to stop the person (I know who is sending them)from harassing me!

Grant
November 6, 2010 10:59 AM

I have been getting emails of harrasment for mens enhancement drugs (I'm 14 years old) by what I think are friends (or people I know) at school. I email a bunch of people at school, so it wouldn't be hard to find out my email if you went to my school. I recently broke up kinda harshly so it could be my ex sending them, or one of her friends. Could I go to the authorities with this? I just really want to bust whoever is doing this.

Sounds more like typical spam. If it is as you describe it's possible that the authorities would be an appropriate place to go, I just don't know how much time and effort they'd be able to put into it. In your shoes I'd probably delete it and ignore it.
Leo
07-Nov-2010

Ryan
May 16, 2011 9:58 AM

Love your stuff Leo!

I understand that I can't track an email and ID the individual nor the address-----But can I least tell what state (ex: Ohio) the email originated from? Even if they are using an anonomous email service...can I at least figure out they state they are in? or no? Thank you

Not reliably, no. Especially if they're using an anonymizer.
Leo
17-May-2011

Kelly
May 18, 2011 9:22 AM

My ex-wife is not allowed to email my work (by court order), so now her current husband sends harrassing emails on a daily basis. Is there a way to deteremine if she was involved in the email prior to it being sent? They both have yahoo accounts.

Any insight would be greatly appreciated.

Luis
October 23, 2011 7:51 PM

Someone wrote me an usual email and I think its my ex sending it from a fake email address. Here is the trick at the end it reads "Sent from my HTC on the Now Network from Sprint."

He send it from a hotmail to my aol account. Can there be something in email header info, I don't know.


Is there any way that I can find out the telephone number its being send from?

Thanks

Mark J
October 24, 2011 12:48 AM

@Luis
The only thing that message says is that someone with an HTC phone using the Sprint Network sent you the message. That's probably all you ever would be able to find out.

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