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How do I find out who’s sending harassing email?

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My son has been receiving harassing e-mail that is sent to his Yahoo account and on Facebook. How do I find out the IP, and where and who they are coming from?

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:

You don’t.

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.

Occasional clues

There are sometimes clues in email headers that you typically don’t see.

Internet AbuseIn 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.

A reminder

At the risk of offending with redundancy, I have to reiterate:

You cannot trace the origin of 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.

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17 comments on “How do I find out who’s sending harassing email?”

  1. It has been years since I used Facebook but at one time you could not send a message to the user without being signed in yourself. If that is still the case sending a message to the folks who ride herd on the Acceptable Use Policy should result in some action.

  2. Hi: I would suggest that families that wish to get involved in social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace get a separate email address just for that purpose. That way if the email becomes offensive then close it and set up another. Also complain to the sites managers. We had a problem with MySpace when somebody set up an account in our name with false info. While I do not like the site, a number of relatives are on it so I set up a separate email account and then set up an account with no picture. I still get weird emails but it is manageable. Parents need to let their kids know that what they put out there can come back to them later.

  3. All of Leo’s comments are true enough, when it comes to a typical email sent by a typical person. But it gets worse if the person has some expertise. There are all sorts of ways to edit the headers of the emails that you send so they appear to come from a totally different IP address, different source email address, etc. So even if the recipient could trace the IP address, he can’t be sure that what he reads in the header is true in the first place. Also, even for people without the expertise to do this kind of misdirection on their own, there are plenty of web-based forwarding services that will hide your identity for you, and many of them don’t keep any records so police involvement will be useless. So it really is a long shot to hope to trace emails back to the source.

  4. A simple solution is to change email address. Delete the old one, get a new one which does not include your name, and let only those from whom you wish to correspond know the new address. Also, use an address which has more than alphabet characters, such as knot232head45@isp.com

  5. So if someone lets say calls you dirty names or spreads your business around on facebook or myspace and they are not threatnign you but just causing you to look bad to others or make profiles of you but nothing bad then they can not be tracked?

    I am not a lawyer, but as I understand it they can be tracked – maybe – only if they’ve done something illegal.

    – Leo
    06-Dec-2008
  6. My life is currently being disrupted (over the last 2 or 3 months) by someone sending email and text through an anonymous re-mailer that is coming out of italy I think (mixmaster.it is the domain) Is there any way at all to get the feds or someone else involved? probably not. long story short I have lost 1 friend and another is on the verge because of this, The person is using my name to send these messages. It looks like from what I see above that the answer is no, I am looking for even a glimmer of hope.
    The actual emails that I have gotten trace back to a couple of free wi-fi locations according to the tools I could find on the internet, and the computer name seems to change in every one. The Text messages that hit my phone show as coming from a 5 digit number when I look at the history in my bill but I have no idea what to do with that. I see this thread is a couple of years old. Are there any new developments that might help in this situation? Thanks if you can answer if not I won’t take it personally 🙂

    The only approach remains contacting the authorities.

    Leo
    13-Jun-2010

  7. I was getting harassing texts and was lead to believe nothing could be done. Then, I spoke with my sister who knew of an incident at her daughter’s school involving harassing texts. The principal told the parent to involve authorities. This is what I found online:
    It’s illegal to annoy
    A new federal law states that when you annoy someone on the Internet, you must disclose your identity. Here’s the relevant language.

    “Whoever…utilizes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by the Internet… without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person…who receives the communications…shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both

    I’m going to our local authorities in the morning! You bet I’ll do what I can to stop the person (I know who is sending them)from harassing me!

  8. I have been getting emails of harrasment for mens enhancement drugs (I’m 14 years old) by what I think are friends (or people I know) at school. I email a bunch of people at school, so it wouldn’t be hard to find out my email if you went to my school. I recently broke up kinda harshly so it could be my ex sending them, or one of her friends. Could I go to the authorities with this? I just really want to bust whoever is doing this.

    Sounds more like typical spam. If it is as you describe it’s possible that the authorities would be an appropriate place to go, I just don’t know how much time and effort they’d be able to put into it. In your shoes I’d probably delete it and ignore it.

    Leo
    07-Nov-2010

  9. Love your stuff Leo!

    I understand that I can’t track an email and ID the individual nor the address—–But can I least tell what state (ex: Ohio) the email originated from? Even if they are using an anonomous email service…can I at least figure out they state they are in? or no? Thank you

    Not reliably, no. Especially if they’re using an anonymizer.

    Leo
    17-May-2011

  10. My ex-wife is not allowed to email my work (by court order), so now her current husband sends harrassing emails on a daily basis. Is there a way to deteremine if she was involved in the email prior to it being sent? They both have yahoo accounts.

    Any insight would be greatly appreciated.

  11. Someone wrote me an usual email and I think its my ex sending it from a fake email address. Here is the trick at the end it reads “Sent from my HTC on the Now Network from Sprint.”

    He send it from a hotmail to my aol account. Can there be something in email header info, I don’t know.

    Is there any way that I can find out the telephone number its being send from?

    Thanks

  12. @Luis
    The only thing that message says is that someone with an HTC phone using the Sprint Network sent you the message. That’s probably all you ever would be able to find out.

  13. At the risk of sounding like an oddball, I would suggest that the best defense against online harassment is to focus on developing real world relationships. Real friends, as opposed to social media “friends” won’t be fooled by someone attempting to make you look bad online. Don’t email filters work for reducing and automatically trashing unwanted emails? I seldom log in to social media sites, so what do I know? The only social site I use personally is meetups, and that exists to facilitate actually getting out and meeting people. I love using my devices to learn and enhance my life, but I try not to let them use me. If at some point someone started seriously harassing me through them, I would contact law enforcement and if it was serious enough I wouldn’t stop until they took it seriously. The only reason I would have to track down a harasser myself would be to aid law enforcement. People who spend their time using technology to harm people and spread negativity are only reflecting the misery of their own pathetic existence.

  14. I would like to suggest an app-on I use on Thunderbird. I would not tell you the IP the e-mail is comming from but it will tell you what country is coming from and a rout the e-mail travel until your mail-box. Although it’s just that, but it help me to know some information whether is coming from Africa or India or some place else. This is its web site:
    http://www.mailhops.com/ and the add’s name is Mailhops and you can add it from the add’s site. Thanks.

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