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Email addresses are by definition, fairly specific. It's unlikely but malware, misconfiguration or other interference could cause misdeliveries.

I sent an e-mail to my cousin, *****14 at comcast.net and got back a reply telling me not to contact her again. It says I sent it to ?????14 at comcast.net where ????? is completely different than *****.

How can this happen? Isn't an e-mail address exact? If I sent an e-mail to person1@somerandomservice.com why would it show up as sent to someotherperson@somerandomservice.com? if so, is there a way to prevent such events from happening?

Wow.

I will say that you've got a bit of a mystery here. While I have a couple of ideas, I can't actually say "this is it" and give you a single solution.

In fact, I'm hoping my readers have some other theories as to why this might have happened.

First, I have to say that all of these possibilities are unlikely. They're either difficult to have happen by accident, or they're likely to be things that you or your cousin would simply notice and fix.

But unlikely as they may be, clearly something's happening.

"I have to say that all of these possibilities are unlikely."

My first reaction is malware. Not necessarily on your machine (though of course you should check), but on your cousin's. It's possible that his email has been hijacked in some way so as to redirect what he's getting and sending it somewhere else.

So it would make sense that both of you should follow the traditional advice: make sure your anti-malware software is up to date and scan for both viruses and spyware.

My second thought, and the most common reason I send email to people accidentally, is my email program's "auto fill" feature. As I type the first few characters of a persons name or email address, the program automatically fills in either recently used email addresses, or email addresses from my contact list, so I can just hit enter after it hits the one I want, rather than typing in the entire email address. I'll end up getting use to typing, say "k", having it immediately bring up my wife's email address and I'll hit enter. That works fine until for some reason the list changes and some other email address beginning with "k" comes up first. All of a sudden I type "k" followed by Enter without paying attention and someone else gets some very embarrassing email.

You might check your sent mail folder to confirm that you actually sent the message to the email address you think you did. If not, I'd be suspicious of this kind of auto-fill misfire. (It doesn't always have to be the leading characters, by the way. I've seen email programs that try to be smarter and look for substrings, or check both the email address and the display name at the same time.)

You might also double check your address book. I've seen address book entries where the display name is actually an email address, but the email address associated with it is something else entirely. Who knows which one you'd be sending to.

My next thought was that your recipient has their email forwarded to another account. I have this setup myself: my Hotmail account actually forwards to my private account, which in turn these days forwards to my GMail account. Send me email on Hotmail, and I could read it, and respond from, any of at least three different accounts.

So, there's a chance that your cousin's email is being forwarded somewhere you're not expecting it.

Certainly there's a chance that the ISP screwed up, but that's well below the bottom of any list of possibilities I'd actually consider.

Yes, in theory, an email address - like a phone number - is exact. But, like a phone, sometimes things can happen that end up redirecting or hijacking it. Unlikely things, but things nonetheless.

Readers: if you've got an idea on what might have happened, post a comment; love to hear it.

Article C3879 - September 25, 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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12 Comments
Clifford
September 25, 2009 4:51 PM

First of all, need a little more info. Was it a reply to, new email, or what email client/app?
Do a search, first on your email folders looking for ??????14 and then second on whole PC.

Happened to a friend 2 years ago. Bunch of emails supposedly "sent" from her pc. It was a virus on someone else's infected PC. Used old emails to modify addy a little and used her return addy.

I would run an intensive and deep scan as soon as you can. I have used one for 15 years and NEVER a problem. Don't know Leo's policy on posting urls.

Peggy
September 26, 2009 12:44 PM

I read the comments. To answer Clifford I sent an e-mail to my cousin at the correct address. I got back a reply from my cousin(their correct address) saying I sent it to a similar address which called them a profanity. the -supposed to theme-mail had the correct middle part as the first part, a profanity as the second part and their number at the end. their e-mail is abc wxy 14 and I got wxyprofanity14

Wayne Whitehorne
September 26, 2009 4:16 PM

I happen to know the person who sent the original enquiry. First - what happened - was the mail was delivered to the address it was intended to go to - BUT - the CONTENT was changed "on the fly" it seems - with the "TO:" part of the e-mail header containing the "undesirable" content. Something like this: e-mail sent to "johnsmith@anymail.com" and arriving there - BUT - the CONTENT of the message containing something like "joeblow@anymail.com" in the header. Hope this clarifies the original issue.

Clifford
September 29, 2009 5:42 AM

Wayne, have them send the same email to 3 different folks three times. Use CC: the first time, BCC: the third time and then individually.

See what happens. Hopefully, 2 out three will not see the changes. If so, then the email that was changed would most likely mean the pc is infected.

David
September 29, 2009 6:38 AM

I'd send back an email to the address you MEANT it to go to and tell your cousin something like "my email I sent you was somehow misdirected to somebody else. Sorry if it's caused any problems at your end". That way you can test the repeatability and have an apology 'sort of' built in, in case the wrong person gets it again. But just as importantly, I'd include yourself as a BCC recipient so that you can get an instant result of what's happening to your email. Sounds a bit fiddly and not necessarily conclusive but it's a good and easy way of narrowing the problem down.

Jerry Russo
September 29, 2009 8:56 AM

This similar situation happened to my wife, she had the same address as someone in CA, **********@comcast.net.
After receiving a few of their e-mails, I asked them to stop using my wife's address , as I had called Comcast and they said it was indeed hers.
They continued to use my wife's address, so I wrote them back and told them I would in the future publish all their e-mails, (which were some type of work related information),on as many public sites as possible, You tube etc., well they immediately stopped using it.

Mike
September 29, 2009 9:54 AM

Sounds like malware on somebody's computer, usually some third party not even involved in that particular email, but still someone who has yours (and probably the other person's) email address in their address book. I even get mail from "myself" with subject lines that I've used in the past.

Matt
September 29, 2009 11:58 AM

Another possibility is an e-mail account with several aliases. All aliases goto the same account and replies usually are from just one of the aliases.

MerryMarjie
September 29, 2009 2:25 PM

I have a rather common e-mail address on Yahoo, say "MSmith@yahoo.xxx", and I get mail meant for others all the time. There are Michael, Megan, Michelle, Mary, Mark, Marian, etc., who all have last names with Smith with accounts on Yahoo, and for some reason, their mail sometimes ends up in my box (along with all of their spam, thank you). I don't know if the senders forgot to add numbers after the name, or shortened the name thinking that was the legitimate address, but since it happens many times a week, I just ignore it. Sometimes I'll send a note saying the addressee is wrong, but after so many a day, I just delete them because it is time consuming. Sorry if I'VE ever been rude in a reply (I hope not!), but you have no idea until you've been plagued with mounds of mail to sort.

Bernice
October 2, 2009 3:57 PM

Having worked for an ISP for eight years, it is definitely not a screwup by an ISP. computers are too literal to mistake an email address. However, if this is the first time your cousin sent you an email, it may be that he/she misconfigured her email program. We also often find that some customers mistakenly think that simply configuring their email program (such as Outlook Express) gives them that email. They don't realize that the email also has to be configured on the ISP's servers. Therefore your cousin would be able to send from that address, but could not receive replies; only the actual owner of the address would be able to receive replies. Incoming email is password protected but outgoing is not which would be why your cousin could send from the address.

Stan Schroeder
October 28, 2010 2:01 AM

I have been sending E-mail to my friend for 2 months. We have replied back and forth. Today, I got a flaming reply with his address. It was my friends Email address, but definitely not from him. If you are interested I can send you the "details" under properties. The "Received from" portion has totally diffent information. Yet the email address is identical. Interesting to note: this is comcast just like your article.

Ceil
October 21, 2011 9:51 AM

Second time this happens I clicked on the correct contact the one it was sent to is two below how can this happen would like to retrieve it can I?

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