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Weblog Entry

Mistaken Identity

April 16, 2004

Interestingly, it seems that ‘’ [which is in fact coming soon, despite the empty promise that particular wording entails] is generic enough a name to warrant mistaken identity.

For example: let’s say, hypothetically of course, that my server is configured to forward absolutely anything @ the domain name to my catch-all inbox. Let’s say, also theoretically, that earlier in the week a 2MB email landed in my inbox.

Since we’re still talking speculatively, imagine that I had instinctively deleted it as a virus. But if something had caught my eye and made me fish it out of my deleted items folder, imagine how surprised I would have been to discover that the email was addressed to a ‘Judith’ at X Creative, where ‘X’ has been substituted for an actual business name.

And imagine my amazement to discover the sender had forwarded payroll and expense worksheets for a major TV commercial shoot happening soon. Theoretically.

Is there etiquette for a situation like this? Announcing that the intended recipient didn’t receive the email is fine when it’s a simple conversation or confirmation or anything else non-confidential. But bring (assumed confidential) financial worksheets into the equation, and the dynamic completely changes.

update: I’ve informed the sender of his mistake. We’ll see what happens.

Reader Comments

Tomas says:
April 16, 04h

I’d reply and tell them that they have the wrong address.

Dave S. says:
April 16, 04h

But why? Simply to extend a courtesy?

Tomas says:
April 16, 04h

Well, for one, to be nice. And two, so that I won’t continuously receive more e-mail from them which isn’t for me. I get enough unsolicited e-mail as it is.

I’m not really worried about my honesty being questioned in this case, since I don’t see how the alternative – to be quiet – can in any way be considered more honest.

April 16, 04h

I get emails like this all the time because often users of a hosting provider with a similarly named domain don’t know the difference. It’s pretty comical the emails I see like this… though only a couple every few months… most of them are for tech support.

Well, knowing how much a of a pain in the ass dealing with tech support is to begin with, I feel obligated to ensure the person knows that the email they sent never made it to tech support at that hosting company.

Likewise, my magazine still maintains the title of best hosting company in some awards show because someone had a typo in the URL on the award web page.

Dave S. says:
April 16, 04h

Since posting, ‘hypothetical’ advice (and therefore non-binding and non-legal) from someone in the legal profession is that it really shouldn’t matter if I reply or not, so long as I delete the information and don’t pass it on.

So my paranoia is most likely unfounded. (Just call me a pessimist.) I think I’ll see what happens if I do reply.

James says:
April 16, 05h

Dave, I’m not in entertainment or law so I’m just an unqualified layman on those matters, but I do work for a health-insurance firm and handling sensitive and confidential information is what we do (it’s a great pickup line – “I could tell you about what I see at work, but that’d be a violation of federal law”).

Because of the sensitivity of what we work with, everything we send out bears a disclaimer marking it as privileged information and providing instructions in case you receive it in error. Basically it asks that you notify the sender as soon as possible and destroy/return the information as appropriate. So, for example, if you receive a fax that you shouldn’t have, shred it. If you get somebody’s x-ray, send it back. In the hypothetical case of the email, you’d want to reply and inform the sender of the error, then delete the email you received. It’s just common sense, really.

Eric says:
April 16, 06h

Dave, I won’t say it’s common sense; but in thinking about it a little, it seems best to reply…first, you won’t get more email. Second, they will figure out it disappeared sometime, and panic about who’s hands it might have fallen into. Third, they will figure out it went to you eventually and hunt you down :)

Drop them an email, I think.

Ethan says:
April 16, 06h

I don’t know what your mail client is, but heck: another option might be to try’s “Bounce” feature. Might kill two birds with one stone – you’ll have let them know the address is invalid, and kept your hands clean.

April 16, 06h

Four options as I see it

1. Bounce it back, delete it and forget it ever happened.
2. Reply with a counter offer undercutting the original price.
3. if you think the ad will be effective invest, invest, invest
4. Reply advising the sender that the address was wrong, and that you deleted the main in question.

Well, only one ethical option. But still options never-the-less.

Andy Baio says:
April 16, 06h

I often receive e-mail that’s intended for other people, except they usually don’t want it either. By owning the catch-all for, I get loads of mail addressed to ‘not’, ‘yourenot’, ‘nowayinhellareyou’, and all the other clever variations that people prepend to

I’ve received username/passwords for Lexis/Nexis, dating sites, social networking sites, and more. But most of it is just crap. And since I don’t have their real address, I have no way to forward it on.

Jeremy S. says:
April 16, 07h

From time to time I get emails regarding a company from Europe which is located at, and mine is .net. I usually just forward them off and delete them, not really thinking much of it.

But in this case, thats very, very big.

Rob says:
April 16, 09h

Worst-case scenario would be that the sender gets in some deep trouble. No responsibility for this can fall on you, so informing the sender was a decent thing to do.

Alex says:
April 17, 08h

For some reason I get a lot of mail I shouldn’t. There was a time when I’d constantly receive copies of all the price changes at a certain supermarket chain. But the weirdest thing was when I accidentaly received some reports about safety & tyre problems with Israeli armored combat vehicles still in development. That was 2 years ago. Strange stuff.

April 17, 08h

In my experience, any email that looks like its for someone with a similiar name is generally a fake. They seem to come for one of two reasons:

1) A virus that sent itself to an improper address. Generally they aren’t 2 megs in size like yours was Dave, so I can see how your email was real. For example, when one of the more recent viruses were being spread, I got a lot of emails to addresses like sale@…com.

2) I’ve received quite a few emails that looked totally legit, with the exception of the header. I’ve found that many of these have turned out to be probes to see if your email address will work on some list. Again, if you have a 2 meg document that seems legit, I would assume that it would make a poor probe. That’s why I’m a fan of the bounce option. It works well at telling both the spammers and the people getting the address wrong that “this address won’t work for you”

Then again, maybe Gates has it right and email should be a pay service… Not him getting paid, but perhaps our government (maybe they could lower taxes then). Charging is the only way (other than creating an internal email system that boots anyone that’s spamming from it, but that doesn’t work well on a global scale, and yes I know, either does money). If their is no loss of money, they will have no reason to stop.

patrick says:
April 17, 09h

Try having a domain name like
People don’t RTFRFC and use Lots of stuff like your article mentions – only with the address embedded in 100s of software apps for colleges, banks, et. al.

pid says:
April 17, 10h

I had exactly the same problem with, of all things, my hotmail address.

In my case the sender was a secretary of some sort at a UK local government department, and she was forwarding to me extensive (and confidential) word documents and minutes of meetings about the supply of computers to, and the firewall policies of, UK schools.

I informed her that she had the wrong address politely, and instead of ceasing, she continued to send me documents while insisting that it was the correct address of someone on their committee.

Later in our correspondance, she accused me of hacking into the (non) owners account, so I called her office and explained the situation to her boss.
The flow of mail stopped.

I guess some people *really* don’t like to be told they’re wrong… Weird huh?

April 17, 12h

I get mails frequently for the previous owner of my domain. I used to send them back and let the sender know (out of courtesy) but 3 years is enough and now I just bounce them. I don’t know where I read this but it’s a rule I stick to when sending email from home or outside the work network: Don’t put anything in that you wouldn’t write on a postcard. (Or encrypt/secure as appropriate).

Sjors says:
April 17, 12h

Totally off-topic but: Cool logo!

Shannon J Hager says:
April 17, 12h

This happened to me more than once, but not with business matters. Twice it was someone who thought that my email account was owned by someone else and sent me long conversational emails catching up on “old times”.

Once it was someone writing a friend to console them on the news of their health and to offer prayers. The person had the same first name as my domain.

In the last case, I responded because it was email that did need to reach its destination and I felt it was no work for me to help make sure that it happened. The amount of work I did vs. the amount of possible damage that could have been done if I refused made the choice simple.

Real mail? Walking out to the mail box? Well… that would have been a different story, possibly. I’ve lived here for a year, the former resident was here for 5 years, and mail still comes for the resident before her.

April 19, 03h

I used to get the same thing as I owned an domain. People would send mail to me instead of I initially replied telling them of the error and sugesting they re-send to, but after a while I was getting so much mail, that I just turned off the catch-all and it now bounces all of the stuff that isn’t for me.

James says:
April 19, 04h

Justin (21): We use email mainly for internal coordination purposes; there are privacy concerns with it, I’m sure, but it’s also just too inconvenient for anything else. The vast majority of our communication is sent by phone, fax and conventional mail, because that’s what works.

Justin says:
April 19, 09h

James [6]: Why is it that most people who deal with sensitive information do not use encryption for their messages?

I remember trying to convince a Private Investigator that sending very private info about his subjects was a bad idea. A couple days later he even sent me his credit card info via email so I could register his domain. I couldn’t understand why he just didn’t want to bother.

I know that I sure wouldn’t want medical records to be sent through the mail on postcards - so why is unencrypted email okay?

April 19, 09h

Unencrypted e-mail isn’t even like a postcard: It’s more like passing a folded note across an elementary school classroom.

You are entrusting your message to every single person who runs a part of the network between you and the intended recipient. “Here, pass this along but don’t read it. Please?” Meanwhile, J. Random Sysadmin running the mail server at your ISP can sneak a peak and never get caught.