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Why Am I Getting Email Sent to an Email Address Similar to Mine?

When it kinda sorta looks like yours, but it’s not.

Getting Too Much Email
(Image: canva.com)
It's not uncommon to get unexpected email sent to an email address similar to your own. I'll review why that is and what to do about it.
My email address is {example}@gmail.com and about a week ago I started receiving emails (mainly advertising and spam but all from USA, and I live in Portugal!!) that were sent to {example}@aol.com. I tried sending an email to this “other” {example} but got it returned saying the address doesn’t exist. Yet that is the address that the senders are using and they are somehow coming to me. Is this some sort of phishing or someone being naughty? Have you come across this before?

In the question above, I’ve used “{example}”1 as a replacement for specific email addresses. In each case, the part before the “@” was the same; it was only the part after “@” that was different.

This is spam, nothing more. Mark it as spam and move on.

There are several ways this can happen, but there is one approach spammers use that explains most clearly what they’re up to, and why.

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TL;DR:

Email to a similar address

Spammers often use email addresses similar to yours to get your attention and pique your curiosity. If you don’t see your real email address on the message, it’s likely to have been BCC’ed. Regardless, it’s spam, and should just be marked as spam in your email program or interface.

The parts of an email address

Every email address consists of two parts: the part before the “at” sign (“@”), and the part after.

  • The part after identifies the email service handing the email. For example, @gmail.com means the Google Mail service is used, @aol.com means AOL, @randomisp.com means that the server associated with randomisp.com is used, and @askleo.com means the Ask Leo! mail server handles that email address.
  • The part before identifies the email account on that service to which the email should be routed. That is often someone’s name.

Combing then two, then, an email address like “leo@askleo.com” means that the account called “leo” on the “askleo.com” mail server is the intended recipient.

Even when the part before (“leo”) is the same, if the parts after (“@askleo.com” or “@randomisp.com”) are different, then they are two completely separate and unrelated email addresses.

That unrelated part is important. While “leo@askleo.com” and “leo@randomisp.com” seem like similar email addresses, they really have nothing whatsoever to do with one another.

Spammers want your attention

When spammers spam, they’re trying to get your attention so you’ll read and act on whatever they place in the body of their message. One way to do that is to send “To:” email addresses similar to yours.

For example, if I used an email address like “leonotenboom@askleo.com”, then a spam email sent to “leonotenboom@randomisp.com” might get my attention, even though it’s not my email address. Especially since I have a rather unique name, seeing “leonotenboom” as an email address will at least grab my interest, even if I’ve never heard of “randomisp.com” or set up an account there.

One way spammers do this is by using email addresses already on their lists or email addresses discovered in data breaches. They take the first part (e.g. “leonotenboom”) and then send spam to that account on all the major email services.

Let’s say my email address — {example}@askleo.com — is discovered in a breach.

Some spammers will then proceed to send spam to similar email addresses on other domains:

  • {example}@aol.com
  • {example}@gmail.com
  • {example}@hotmail.com
  • {example}@outlook.com
  • {example}@yahoo.com

and so on. They might send to hundreds or thousands of email addresses all beginning with {example}, regardless of whether or not those accounts actually exist.

Spammers ignore failures

Let’s say spammers send emails to 100 different variations of {example}@ email addresses. Let’s also say 99 of those don’t exist.

Spammers don’t care. Even if the emails generate 99 bounces, spammers don’t care for either or both of two reasons:

  • They’re not monitoring replies at all.
  • The “From:” addresses used were spoofed and have no relationship to the spammer, the source of the spam, or anything else. The spammer will never see any bounce message sent to that address.

This is why replying to spam never works: the spammers never see it and wouldn’t care if they did.

And since spam is so cheap for spammers to send, it only takes one success for the hundred- (or thousand-, or million-) message campaign to be a success.

You might not be on the “To:” line

One thing that confuses people is that their real email address isn’t anywhere on the message they got. As the question states: “[this bogus address] that the senders are using and they are somehow coming to me. ”

No, it’s not getting forwarded. As I said, the bogus address and your real address are not related in any way. Period.

Here’s how the original email probably started:

To: {example}@aol.com
Bcc: {example}@gmail.com
Bcc: {example}@hotmail.com
Bcc: {example}@outlook.com
Bcc: {example}@yahoo.com

Only one of the email addresses is exposed on the “To:” line. It got your attention because it’s an email address similar to your own, but it’s not yours.

The email you got was BCC’ed along with all the other variations. You wouldn’t see it, because you can’t see who was BCC’ed on an email, but you would get it.

The email looks like it was sent to someone else (because it was), but you got it because it was also sent to you.

There’s no forwarding going on

The original question included the following concern:

[an issue is that] the false address [is] being accepted for the senders and [then] being diverted to me

The concern was that the message was being sent to an incorrect @aol.com email address shown on the “To:” line, accepted there, and then somehow automatically forwarded or redirected to the correct email address @gmail.com.

No. That’s not what happened. The message was not diverted.

  • If the @aol.com address was legitimate, it was delivered to the recipient there.
  • If the @aol.com address was bogus, it likely generated a bounce. As we’ve seen, spammers ignore bounces.
  • If your correct @gmail.com address was BCC’ed, as is my theory, then the message was simply sent directly to you no matter what happened over at @aol.com.

Skepticism is always called for

As you can see, spammers play games to mess with you. They’ll do anything to make things look legitimate — or at least suspiciously legitimate enough to warrant your attention.

Don’t fall for it.

Spam is spam, no matter what games they play.

The best solution remains:

  • Mark spam as spam.
  • Move on with your life.

And curse spammers under your breath,2 if you like.

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Footnotes & References

1: Again, a reminder that “{example}” is a placeholder for a real email account like “leonotenboom”, “leo”, or whatever the first part of your email address might be. I use this to avoid inadvertently listing someone’s real email address. Other examples, like lnotenboom@askleo.com or lnotenboom@randomisp.com, are on domains I control, and hence I have no such worry.

2: Or not.

19 comments on “Why Am I Getting Email Sent to an Email Address Similar to Mine?”

  1. i sometimes get emails from people telling me, “stop sending me your dirty emails,
    i`m not interested”. i simply reply that i didn`t send the email, i must`ve been spoofed.
    mark it as spam and forget it.
    i hope telling them to mark it as spam doesn`t affect my email address in any way.

    Reply
    • I’d ignore those emails. They may be legit but there’s also a possibility that those are spam. If you continue to get emails like that, set a filter in your email program or Gmail website to send those emails to trash. I wouldn’t mark them as spam as they might be legit.

      Reply
      • i don`t mark their emails as spam, but their replies come to me.
        i tell them to mark the emails supposedly sent by me as spam.
        that`s what i was hoping wouldn`t affect my email address.

        Reply
      • Hi, folks.
        I believe my case is more complicated.
        Somebody in US has the same email address as I have. Not similar. The same exact address.
        I keep receiving email sent to him. I asked Google but they say it is impossible, and that’s it. But I keep receiving his emails in my account. And I receive emails from other similar accounts too.
        I’m in Brasil. The other people are in US.
        Any hints?

        Reply
        • It is simply not possible for two people to have the same email address. There is something different about his, OR you’re being included in addition to his, with some combination of To, Cc, or Bcc being involved.

          Reply
        • It’s absolutely impossible for 2 people to have the same email address unless they are sharing the same account. The email adress is the login name for the account and if you had the same email address, youd each be getting all of each other’s emails.

          Reply
  2. I frequently get emails for someone with the same name as me. They have a dot in the first part of their address and I don’t but Google keep sending them to me. So, say I’m itsme@gmail, and they’re its.me@gmail. Mostly they’re medical messages, but why do they come to me? I also get Uber and McDonalds receipt emails for someone else but addressed to me at hotmail. I don’t know if they’re using my address or if it’s a mistake. Whoever it is is not using my email account for anything else and I have changed my password several times, so I guess the account is secure.

    Reply
  3. Several years ago, my Yahoo account was involved in a data breach. If I understand correctly, email addresses were harvested from my contact list even though my email address was not compromised. Because one of my other email addresses was in my Yahoo contact list, I am still getting emails supposedly from me (My name appears as the sender but when you dig a little deeper you discover that the sender has a completely different email address)

    Reply
  4. Question about the dot: My email address is {first}dot{last}@comcast.net. My cousin’s email address is {first}{last}@comcast.net. We never get each other’s email. If comcast.net ignores the dot, how can that be? Does comcast.net treat addresses differently than gmail.com does?

    Reply

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