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Determining if an email was sent when someone says they sent it is tricky to impossible. Email is just too easy to forge.

Greetings from Ireland! Is there any way I can find out if someone actually sent me an email? A company said that they sent me an important email but it never arrived. If I ask them to resend it, how I would know it was not a fake? I use Windows XP and Outlook Express as my email client.

In this excerpt from Answercast #86, I look at various ways that emails can get lost after sending and the difficulty of telling what was really sent - and when.

Determine if an email was sent

The bottom line is that you actually can't tell for sure. Email is, in many ways, not really that secure and not really that deterministic.

So, the very first thing I would have you do is check your spam folder.

Actually, check it in two different places. If you have spam filtering turned on in Outlook Express, make certain that the message you're expecting isn't in the spam folder there.

Server level spam filtering

However, many email service providers (and I'm not sure which one you're using for this), but many of them actually provide that same kind of spam filtering, usually not quite as aggressive, at the server level.

What that means is that sometimes, email gets spam filtered before it ever reaches your PC.

One thing you can do is to go to your email service provider's web mail access; if they provide such a thing. Basically, that's a way for you to access your email without your PC - by simply logging on to some kind of web interface provided by your email service provider. That allows you to access the email that hasn't yet been downloaded to your PC.

Sometimes, in there, you will find a spam folder. Check that spam folder too.

Now, the one caveat I have to throw out here with these spam folders, is that most email programs and services will automatically delete spam from that folder permanently after a certain amount of time - usually around 30 days or so. If this email was supposedly sent to you say six months ago, I wouldn't expect to find it in the spam folders.

Did they really send it?

But ultimately, to answer the bottom-line question, "Is there a way to know whether they really sent you that email however long ago?" No, there just isn't.

If they send you something today that claims to be that email from however long ago, do you know that it is, in fact, the email that they sent you from so long ago? No.

Email is way, way too easy to forge.

So, there really isn't a good answer to this question. There is no way to really know that they did send you what they said they sent you - or that what they resend you is in fact what you expect it to be.

(Transcript lightly edited for readability.)

Article C6228 - January 10, 2013 « »

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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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1 Comment
Alex Dow
January 11, 2013 11:47 AM

With my ISP's e-mail system, there are two lists available, Accept and Reject.

The Accept List accepts two versions, depending on requirements.

1 Add the normal, full e-mail address of a(potential# Sender; and any e-mail from that #apparent# Sender will be accepted etc,

2 Add the email address of typically a company, starting at and including the "@" symbol; and any e-mail from that #apparent# company will be accepted etc.

#apparent) ?? They can be faked.

The Reject List acts in a similar manner; but rejecting etc.

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