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People often send email to the wrong address by mistake. But what happens if the email address is invalid? There's no way to know what happens next.

I just sent an email from my MSN Hotmail account to the wrong email address. I am positive that the email I sent it to was wrong as I read it once it left and it asked if I wanted to add it to my contacts after I sent it! The part of the address was my work. I am 100% certain that there is no one at work with that address. Please tell me where it could possibly have gone and is someone going to be able to read it??? I am really worried as it was quite personal.

You're not going to like this answer.

There's no way to know.

At least, not unless someone did get it, and then indicates to you somehow that they did.

Different email systems handle things differently.

Many things might happen to your misdirected email:

  • You may get a bounce indicating that the message was undeliverable. This is perhaps the best possible situation, as you know that it wasn't delivered to the mailbox you sent it too.

  • It may have been silently discarded. No human may ever have seen it, and you wouldn't get notification one way or another.

  • It may have been forwarded to a "catch-all" mail address. Many email servers have the ability to forward email that's sent to an invalid address to one central address. The idea, I suppose, is that someone would then look at it and decide if it was really meant for some other recipient and forward it along. The good news is that because of spam this technique is less and less common. But it could happen.

  • The bad address may be valid. I know, you said you're 100% sure - but how can you really be sure? You'd be surprised some times. And clearly this is a case where you don't want to be surprised.

"The reality is that once you hit send you have lost control of the email."

And on top of all that, remember that the system administrators can see all mail, valid or not. Whether they are taking the time to do that is unknown, but they could.

The bottom line: someone might see it. Or not. There's just no way to predict.

So what do you do?

The reality is that once you hit send you have lost control of the email. There is nothing you can do to recall, un-send or otherwise prevent what ever happens next from happening.

What you choose to do next depends on the situation. Perhaps you need to explain to the lucky unintended recipient. Perhaps you need to apologize. Perhaps you need to start looking for a new job.

Or perhaps you need do nothing - especially if you don't know for certain that the email was seen by anyone.

I can't help you with that decision. It depends on more than the technology involved.

But good luck with it.

Article C2942 - February 22, 2007 « »

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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.

Not what you needed?

February 23, 2007 9:44 AM

Depending on the contents of the original e-mail, you could always follow up the same wrong address with a simple message along the lines of: "Sorry for the confusion. I mistyped the e-mail address, and it wasn't meant for you."

If the address happens to be "live", or ends up in a catch-all box, the recipient will at least understand why they got this message. (And if it bounces, or goes to the bit-bucket, the same fate will meet the second message, and no harm is done.)

Of course, if the original message was something that you wouldn't want someone at work seeing, you're on your own. :-)

February 23, 2007 5:22 PM

Thanks so much for your replies... i feel a little better knowing that there is a high chance that it wont even be read at all...

Just have to leave it up to the Gods now...

Only hope that karma is on my side

thanks again :)

February 23, 2007 6:33 PM

This should be a lesson not ever, EVER, send something personal to a work/business E-mail account. That is what personal E-mail is for. Business E-mail is subject to being looked at by the admins. So, if it was personal, it could be seen, even if it does go to the intended party. Sorry if I seem "preachy".

Paul Robbins
February 23, 2007 7:18 PM

I had this experience: I mistyped an email address causing me to inadvertently send an email intended for my ladyfriend who lived 30 miles from me in CA, to a married lady living in New Zealand. I did not realize my error until I received a response asking : Do I know you? I wrote back explaining the situation and recipient and I have become sort of pen pals.

April 10, 2007 2:38 PM

I am trying to send a HUGE invite from youtube. So I gathered all my contacts into one word doc, separated them by commas and cut and pasted it into my youtube address box and pressed send. An error message came up saying please list valid address. Is there a quick way to find out which addresses are invalide?

Leo Notenboom
April 10, 2007 3:39 PM

Hash: SHA1

My guess would be that you're exceeding a limit ... it looks like there's a 200
character limit.

Version: GnuPG v1.4.6 (MingW32)


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