Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

Do email tracking services work?

Has anyone tried www.—.com? It’s a free email tracking service. How good
and reliable is it? Is it safe to use?

That’s actually a comment that was posted to one of my articles on whether
or not you could tell if email has been opened or read by the recipient.

The short answer is that there’s really only one email tracking technique
currently in use, and it only works maybe half the time. In other words, it’s
not all that helpful.

Let me explain how it works, and you’ll see what I mean.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

When I mention email tracking, most folks think of the “Return Receipt”
option that some mail programs display. The intent of that function
was exactly what you might expect: an automated email back indicating that the
email you sent had been opened.

It doesn’t work.

The reason it doesn’t work is simple: it requires the cooperation of the
email program being used to read the email. Because of abuse by spammers and
others, almost all email programs now either completely ignore Return Receipt
requests or require that you enable the feature before Return Receipts are
acted on. And no one turns it on.

With “Return Receipt” rendered pretty much useless, the technique used today
is to include an image – often an invisible image – that is fetched from a web
page when the email is displayed. Then, using the web server logs on which
those images are hosted, the sender can see who’s opened and displayed their
email.

“But if the image is not displayed, then the email cannot be
tracked. It’s just that simple.”

There are two very large problems with this technique:

  • It works only with HTML or “Rich text” email.

  • It works only if users have “display images” enabled.

That last point is particularly telling. Most email programs now default to
not displaying images in email. The recipient has to enable
it, often by adding the sender’s email address to the list of “trusted”
senders.

But if the image is not displayed, then the email cannot be tracked. It’s just
that simple.

Put another way:

  • If your email is plain text, there’s no way to automatically track whether
    it’s been opened or read. Period.

  • If your email is in HTML, then only those recipients who’ve enabled images
    can be tracked. The rest appear to have never opened your email, even though
    they may have.

There are many tracking services out there that gloss over this fact.
They’ll claim lots of success, but it all boils down to this: you cannot tell
with any certainty that someone hasn’t read your email. They may have opened it
and read it without images turned on, defeating any tracking ability.

And even if you do get notification for those folks with images turned on,
all that tells you is that the email was displayed – it does not tell
you that the email was actually read.

The only truly accurate way to track whether your email is being read is
simply to note whether the recipient acted on it by telling you, by replying,
by clicking a link in the email or by doing something else that can only be
attributed to having read that email.

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Tech problem solving & safety tips & a weekly confidence boost in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

10 Reasons Your Computer is Slow

Slow Computer?

Speed up with my special report: 10 Reasons Your Computer is Slow, now updated for Windows 10.

NOW: name your own price! You decide how much to pay -- and yes, that means you can get this report completely free if you so choose. Get your copy now!

18 comments on “Do email tracking services work?”

  1. I use the program MSGTAG and have found it very useful. I use the paid version and I highly recommend it. It is a rare thing that I send an email using MSGTAG where I don’t get a notification back that it was opened (not necessarily *read* as was pointed out.) Of course these are not life and death instances anyway…I just want to know that someone received my email in their mailbox, whether or not they choose to reply. Fortunately most of the folks that I email, including tech support folks, all seem to use HTML or have “Display images” turned on.

    Reply
  2. If you do not open an email that has a Return Receipt attached to it, but you forward it to another email address and then open it, does it still show as being opened?

    Reply
  3. if a postemaster tells me that my e-mail did not get tru due to code 5.5.0 then i try again with no message. does this mean my e-mail got tru this time?

    Reply
  4. Sir, i have lost my both hotmail account at once in the night as usual i checked mail and closed and next day morning when i check its say email or password invalid my both hotmail account say error message how do i find out what happened to my both Hotmail accounts?

    Reply
  5. Actually, this is all so refreshing!…so many thanks. I just used one of the internet email tracking services ( shall keep it anonymous)to track an impt. email of mine last weekend. I first rec’d a notice from this tracking service indicating my email was being read and further details to come forth…about three minutes later… I received another email from the tracking service: this time showing my email “read duration” time was: 00:00:01! Terrible! It crushed me! I have been devastated thinking my email wasn’t read at all…I thought, maybe, it was immediately deleted when the person saw my name???! This email tracking agency promises to send updates everytime a tracked email is reread…mine was never reread had no updates ever!…never received any more about it then just those initial two emails announcing my email was first being opened with a N/A for the tracking time and second being read with a duration of one second flat! Thanks to this article here that these email tracking services online aren’t that reliable! Now I can finally have some hope that the party I sent it to did read it, even though I was informed my email was only read for one second, this really warms my heart in this particular case…thanks much!

    Reply
  6. I probably use the same tracking service as the above and I can say that just because it reads “duration” as a few seconds, if you look closely at the times the email was opened, you can sometimes see that it was actually up on the screen longer, therefore read longer. The service may just be tracking the initial “click” to open the email. Mine has worked pretty well, but not well enough.

    Reply
  7. The Pointofmail.com service has seemed to be very faithful at returning information as to whether an email has been sent, recived, read, when, where, and how many times it was opened. This is very informative and it also tells you if it was forwarded and to whom. Wow….what do you think about this program????

    Reply
  8. hello..i’ve got pointofmail and guess what..i just got a very snooty email from someone saying they have found out i was spying by having a program that allows me to see when they opened their mail..now i’ve lost a friend…so actually how reliable is pointofmail…and how could a person find out that their email is tracked?? i know that once when i sent one to myself and then forwarded it, at the end of my name it said pointofmail??? of course i can’t get ahold of anyone at pointofmail..

    Reply
  9. I think email tracking is well known technique now a days, even individuals have started making scripts that can track emails. I just found a similar website which does not belong to any professional organization http://www.epagecollection.com/ and also free.

    I’ll just keep saying it: there is no way to reliably track whether email has been opened or read. None.

    – Leo
    07-Feb-2009
    Reply
  10. I have been using a service from time to time, I have tested it. I use it mostly when I am sending important Email to my daughters that “you’ve got money”. I have called them on the phone and asked them not to open it till I send it. I have sent both with a notice to them that it will send back to me and a silent notification, all worked like they were suppose too…. however Leo is correct, 1) they have HTML mail, 2) images will open in their mail. The Ip address locate was very close, with in 5 miles, that’s pretty good, butttt there is still no proof that a person has actually read it! All they did was click on it, I do use it sometimes to figure out if my mail is being read in one city or another, this sometimes helps when dealing with Ebay and the person claims they are in one city but their Ip keeps showing up very far from that city, but the best way to know where they are is to insist on a phone call…. you call them and only on Land Line, the area code will then have to be correct.

    Reply
  11. I used to use MSGTAG, which still seems to be around on http://www.msgtag.com/home/
    I had the free version, which also depended on the recepient having images downloaded by default but, as has been said, e-mail clients, in the main, don’t do that these days. I don’t know how their new, paid-for version works (if differently). Perhaps someone could enlighten me. I see they are still showing the free version, despite my receiving numerous mails from them saying that it would not work any more and pushing to upgrade. Odd

    Reply
  12. Re previous: October 5, 2010 11:53 AM
    Just experimented with MSTAG again and the free version does still work, providing images (“remote content” in Thunderbird) are downloaded. Sent a mail to myself and
    got a notification back that it had been opened. Seems that the developers were a little economical with the truth when they inferred that it would no longer work and I needed to upgrade! Because their servers are still working, I would guess the “latest” paid-for version still depends on an image being opened but perhaps someone can put me straight on that.

    Reply
  13. The hideous irony in all of this — d*mn to the spammers! — is that there is a perfectly legitimate and valid need for the “Read Receipt” (what Leo calls the “Return Receipt”, perhaps confusing it with the US Postal Service postcard item of that name) functionality that was originally built into E-Mail. By flooding us with unwanted Spam and clogging the E-Mail system with useless traffic, they have rendered the Receipt system not only useless to us, but (what is far worse) a weapon to be used by the spammers themselves! Grrrrr!

    Reply
  14. I’ve tried MailTracking and it’s free version works for me. Check it out @ http://www.mailtracking.com/

    I did some notes about it on my blog: http://wp.me/p8C1e-1we

    Like any mail tracking service, this too is unreliable as it relies on people having pictures and or remote content enabled, which most people do not. In this case you need to send your email through their service, so that they can modify your email to add tracking links and related. Looking at their terms of service they also have the right to add advertising to your email. Yuck.

    Leo
    21-Dec-2010

    Reply
  15. I’ve used the service GetNotify.com for email tracking for a long time and it works most of the time. There are occasions when it doesn’t work when recipient has blocked images, but this is usually not the case when I send email to my friends or family members. I’ve also tried sending emails with return receipt confirmation, but almost all email services like hotmail, yahoo, gmail etc do not even ask for return receipts from email recipients.

    Reply

Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.