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!

How Do I Get a Notification When Anyone I Send an Email to Forwards that Email?

How do I get a notification when anyone I send an email to forwards that email?

You cannot.

It is not possible to tell if an email has been forwarded in any reliable way.

Those emails telling you that you might win money by forwarding them on?

Bogus. Each and every one of them.

Let me explain a little why this is so.

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

Email notification 101

The lure of the “notification on forward” fallacy is based on the not-completely-false “notification on receipt” feature that is indeed part of the email specification.

It is possible to request what’s called a “read receipt” when you send a message. The idea is that, when you send an email and the recipient opens it, their email program would respond by sending an email back that says that the message has been opened and presumably read by the recipient.

Read Receipt Request

The problem is that it’s not guaranteed to work and in fact, it rarely does.

As you can see above, I get asked by Thunderbird when a message comes in with read receipt requested. Most people, myself included, will hit Ignore.

And no, there’s no super-secret, hidden, behind-the-scenes email tracking technology…

In fact, most people have their email programs configured to completely ignore and never even display such requests.

Ask all you want, but you’re not very likely to get notified one way or the other.

Even though there’s a “notify on read” option (that rarely works), there is no corresponding “notify on forward” request or option.

And even if there was, you can guess how most people would have it configured: always ignore.

And no, there’s no super-secret, hidden, behind-the-scenes email tracking technology that can somehow tell when you’ve opened, read, or forwarded an email. That would require the cooperation of every email program on the planet – even the open-source ones – and that’s just not going to happen.

Open tracking

There’s another technology that often confuses the issue, and that’s “open tracking.”

It is possible to tell if an email has been opened – if and only if:

  • The email message includes a reference to an embedded image that is located on a server out on the internet.
  • The email recipient chooses to allow that image to display.

The act of fetching an image from a remote server to be displayed in an email message can be used to tell that the message was opened.

Which is exactly why all modern email programs don’t show images by default.

Email remote image warning

Spammers often use this technique to determine if a real person opens the email that they sent; that’s why email programs default to not showing you images unless or until you tell the program otherwise.

And this still does not allow them to track if a message has been forwarded or by whom.

Forward tracking could be possible

The thing that really confuses the issue, of course, is that it’s conceptually possible that forward tracking could be implemented.

On the open internet email system that we all use today, it has not been nor will it ever be implemented.

Closed systems, on the other hand, are another matter.

I use the term “closed system” to mean environments where all email users – both senders and recipients – are using the exact same email systems and servers.

A great example might be the email system within a corporation.

It’s conceivable that such a system might be able to track the flow of an individual message within the system. As soon as the message leaves the system (say out to some random recipient on the internet), then such tracking is once again going to fail.

And for the record, I’m not aware of any closed systems that does this kind of tracking, but it is possible.

(This is an update to an article originally published May 18, 2004.)

Do this

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

22 comments on “How Do I Get a Notification When Anyone I Send an Email to Forwards that Email?”

  1. if i communicate with someone on msn messenger in the morning and latter leave my computer, when i come back latter the same person is still show as being on until i shut down and restart my computer then it will show that person gone. i would really apreciate any help you can give me thank you

  2. Not exactly sure what the problem is. You’re saying the *other* person’s status doesn’t appear to change when they log off sometime while you’re away?

  3. Not exactly true. I once had a problem with a few people forwarding email I sent them. I do care how my messages are distributed as a lazy person can expost MY email address to being spammed.

    Simply clicking forward is both lazy and rude. Rude to the upstream sending because he may not want you sharing his email address with the world. It’s rude to the recipient because most sane people don’t like sifting through pages of header to read content.

    The solution? Setup your own webserver (either on your localmachine or buy some hosting). Do what spammers do and put a transparent image in your email. Send unquie image ladden messages to each respective person you suspect or poor email manners. Watch your hit log on a given transparent webbug. If the counter increases past one from multiple ranges of IP address that do not belong to the netblock of the first you likely have your culprit.

    Amusing variations:

    Wait for the first webbug hit and then change your transparent image to something REALLY big. Perhaps a short note suggesting the reading contact you, rat out your “friend” etc.

    I broke some relatives of the habit of both forwarding my email without first removing the headers and also including MY email address in CC. They now use BCC.

    It depends on the effort you want to exert. I reallllly dislike spam so I go the exrta mile.

    When I have to use Outlook I always use the Disruptor OL plugin

    hope this helps

  4. Is there a way that I can delete several emails without checking each one individually?(MSN Mail)
    I have several thousands and want to retain some of them.

  5. It would be very hard to hide e-mails forwarded from Lotus notes – My guess is the person that you sent the e-mails to from your lotus notes account forwarded them to other parties – As Leo has stated – it would be hard – very hard to tell and with hackers getting more sophisticated each day, you would never quite tell if the information is reliable or not. As with IP Addresses, you can be anyone you want to be – and if someone has little information about you, they can be you in a heartbeat, wreck havoc and the rest would be history. In my experience; I would not trust everything that seems obvious because you might be suprised to find that it just might not.

  6. To Add to Barbara’s point – Leo has stated in many of his articles that you can never trust the information that you have although it might seem pretty obvious. I would suspect that someone had access to your Lotus notes password in order to get to your account. Lotus Notes is typically used by corporations, and in my experience, most take security very seriously sometimes requiring finger print identification – in which case that would only mean that if you suspect that someone has access to your Lotus Notes account, then you need to contact your systems Manager. As Barbara has also stated, anyone can be “you” or anyone else in a heartbeat – which opens another can of worms! I suspect that your account has been hacked – you need to check with your ISP Provider – and my advise to you would be not to trust any content that might be out there purpoting to be from you includind IP addresses, or information obtained from Email headers…none of this can be trusted, and you also have to remember that not all email can be traced or authenticated. Legitimate mail typically can be traced, but for SPAM and virus-generated email it’s difficult to say that the headers are absolutely trustworthy – I think that Leo covers that well in most of his topics – Most of the time the information might seem legitimate BUT 90% of the time – information can be falsified by the click of a mouse.

  7. To answer Fred’s question – when you forward anything from your lotus notes, a blue arrow always shows up on your inbox beside the message so that should be easy to figure out. If there is nothing, then most probably, your inbox has not been compromised. From your question, I am guessing that you believe your lotus notes e-mails have been tampered with? In my experience w ith Lotus Notes – I would highly doubt that someone would forward e-mails from your inbox and cover their tracks. My advice to you is to change your password every 45 days or so; if you can change your computer or laptop and require finger print identification before you can access your files, that would be great. If using a public computer or laptop – set up your lotus notes to require an additional password if you need to have access your e-mails.

  8. Leo, try Forward an e-mail with it. It can tell! :o

    If the email is plain text email.
    If the recipient has images turned off on email

    Then no service can track whether an email has been opened or not.

  9. Regarding another poster’s mention of…

    I set up a trial account using one of my e-mail addresses. Then, using the instructions provided by readnotify, I sent an e-mail to another of my e-mail addresses. Despite my having received, and viewed, the e-mail, readnotify still says “not yet” under “opened”.

    All it did was add return-receipt requests (which I dutifully ignored), and converted my plain-text e-mail to HTML with embedded tracking images (which I dutifully did not show, even when enabling HTML).

    As Leo said as his first sentence in his answer to “how do you”… “You cannot”.

  10. As Leo says – this can happen in closed system. Systems are set up for this to work – especially in newer ERP releases. Someone creates a purchase request. It is for $1000. The system sees that they need to get it signed off by their boss, so an email gets sent – he okays it. The email gets sent to purchasing (or a record – not always a email – but some do work this way), and they create a Purchase order. The emails are tied in with the system. You can go back and track the work-flow of all emails/processes as related to the ERP system. This works fine and is needed in a closed system, but not something that people would allow in the ourside world – nobody wants a big brother looking over your shoulder!

  11. How do I get rid of that persistent tab on the left side of my Firefox screen when I am in the ask-leo page? I mean the tab that advertises your free newsletter. that tab is in the way of the main text and I have to scroll above or below the tab in order to read the main window. Could you please add a little X so I can get rid of the tab?

    For the moment all I can recommend is that you make your browser window wider so that the tab doesn’t overlay the content. If you can’t do that the tab is in a fixed place and won’t move when you scroll so you can view any hidden content simply by scrolling. I am planning to make it narrower, and add the close box you suggest (or something along those lines).


  12. ummmm hey Leo, sorry to refute your sage wisdom, but there are apps out there that not only tell you, IF, your email has been opened, but WHEN, ( date and time stamped ) WHERE ( by providing an IP address ) HOW ( desktop,mobile,etc ) as well as how OFTEN …..

    Try banana tag
    Point of mail
    Contact Monkey
    Many many more….

    • And every single one of them is NOT 100% reliable. They rely on technologies that are commonly blocked, or are able to be blocked, by the recipient. Ultimately a recipient could open and read an email and you would NEVER KNOW.

  13. So if I send an email to someone and bcc myself, I won’t know if they forwarded my email to someone else?

  14. It is now 2019, and a friend received a file from a classmate. That classmate was notified to whom my friend sent that file, when and where EVEN AFTER DOWNLOADING THE FILE AND UPLOADING INTO A NEW MESSAGE!(possibly downloading also included the 1×1) The classmate was using Gmail, whilst my friend was using Windows Live mail (a service that’s been long “discontinued” in favor of Outlook, yet servers must still exist for grandfathered users). Two very separate platforms. I could see in which Gmail to Gmail could hold this feature, and am aware of the “Ask before opening” setting to block 1×1 pixel retrieval, yet the classmate using Gmail said a recent update(2019) occurred before he noticed this feature starting to show up in his Gmail.

    So, is there an alternative besides a 3rd party pixel block (say a Chrome extension), or is there something else at play where this is just the creepy new Google where in which those “never to be implemented” capabilities ARE in-fact being implemented?
    Mind, I haven’t looked through his Windows Live settings to see what can/can’t be changed, and it is hard to find much on Live as I am taken to sites about Outlook instead.


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.