I think it’s kind of frightening how often I get questions like this one.
The sad reality is that the answer for most people is very, very simple:
So what can you do?
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Let’s be clear: you cannot trace the source
Each time I write on this topic, I’m immediately flooded with even more requests similar to this one, which indicate folks have missed the point of the article. I don’t mean to be rude or obnoxious, but I need to be excruciatingly clear at the outset:
You cannot trace the origin of an email to an individual, an address, or, in most cases, even a specific computer. If there’s any hope at all, it requires the involvement of law enforcement.
If the sender of an email does not want to be identified, and if the email does not clearly identify who it’s from, there’s no way for you as the recipient of that email to trace it back to the person who sent it.
There are sometimes clues in email headers that you typically don’t see.
In my article How can I trace where email came from?, I give a brief overview of what those headers look like and what information may be gleaned from them.
Unfortunately, applications like Facebook and other types of messaging systems aren’t really email at all. As a result, they don’t have these headers. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing available to message recipients of those systems that could be used in a way similar to email headers.
Using email headers, you can sometimes determine the “name” of the computer sending the email, and its internet IP address. Often, the email is sent using web services like Hotmail or Gmail, in which case the IP address will be of Hotmail’s or Gmail’s own servers, not the sender’s. Sometimes the services will include the internet IP address of the machine that actually visited the website to send the mail.
But even if you’re “lucky” enough to get the IP address, that’s still not enough information to help you.
The IP address doesn’t help
In another article, Can I get someone’s name and address from their IP address?, the answer is clearly “no” – at least not without the help of law enforcement. An IP address tells you very little about the real-world location of the machine (or machines!) it represents. At best, you can usually locate the ISP responsible for allocating that IP address to actual users.
But once you get that far, you’ll need help.
And that’s where law enforcement comes in. Their response will vary depending on the seriousness of the charge, how seriously they take these types of issues in general, their own expertise in the area, and, of course, their workload.
Based on my own experience with the sheer number of requests I get on this topic, I can only imagine that an already overworked justice system is going to be hard pressed to give you any satisfaction. Your best bet may be to use methods unrelated to email, such as your son’s school’s social structure and dynamics – perhaps with the aid of the staff there – to determine who might be responsible.
Anonymous email is important
In situations like this, it’s tempting to have a knee-jerk reaction that anonymity, and in particular, anonymous email, is evil.
Political dissidents, corporate whistle-blowers, and other individuals with important and sensitive information to share would disagree.
As would I.
Email is simply a tool that can be used for both good and evil.
At the risk of offending with redundancy, I have to reiterate: