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

When you suddenly start receiving suspicious emails from an old friend, the first thing to think of is spam. Don't click on anything!

I'm getting replies to emails I sent four or five months ago and not from the person it was sent to. How can this happen?

In this excerpt from Answercast #50, I look at a case where questionable emails are suddenly coming from an old friend. Sounds suspiciously like a hacked account.

Delayed email replies

It's really difficult to say. Normally, the scenario that immediately jumps to mind is that:

  • The person you sent email to four or five months ago has had their account hacked.

What's the content?

It really depends on exactly what those replies contain.

If they are a reply to the message (in other words, they're actually in context and it makes sense given the conversation you were having with that person) then:

  • For all I know, it could have been stuck in their Outbox for the last four or five months and never really made it out;

  • Or it could have been stuck on an email server somewhere.

That's extremely rare. While the mail system is setup to tolerate delays of maybe multiple days, multiple months is almost unheard of.

Questionable content

If the content of the message that you're getting in this reply is questionable...

  • Maybe it's just a single link (which is common in the case of a hacked email account);

  • Or it's something that is telling you all about their wonderful new product (or whatever it is that they just bought) and they encourage you to go check out this site that also sells that product;

  • Or if they're asking you for money right away;

...that is a sign the account has probably been hacked. The individuals who are manipulating that account (the spammers, or the scammers in this particular case) are actually using that account's address book (or potentially email that's in that account) and replying to it to send their spam.

They're using that to send out spam. They do this because:

  • They know that the email addresses that this person was corresponding with are valid email addresses;

  • So that they know that this is a real email address with a real person at the other end;

  • AND because that email looks like it's comes from somebody that you might know, you as the recipient then are more likely actually open it up and maybe even trust it when you shouldn't.

Notify the person

So my recommendation is, in a case like this:

  • You try and contact the person whose email account this came from.

  • If you have a different way of contacting them, that would be great because you really don't know that this email account even gets to them anymore.

Remember, it's very possible it's been hacked and they don't even have access to it themselves. Let them know that this is what's going on.

Spam happens!

But for the most part... this happens! It's all about how scammers and spammers and hackers get into email accounts and start using them for the purposes of sending spam.

The best thing you can do (if you can't get ahold of the person who this email account belongs to by some other means) is to:

  • Simply delete the mail;

  • Maybe start marking it as spam in your email service so that further email from that same sender would also get marked as spam.

Article C5775 - September 5, 2012 « »

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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