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Why Do I Get Spam Not Addressed to Me? How Spammers Do It, and What Steps You Can Take

Why do I receive junk email not addressed to my specific email address but to several subtle variations of my address? Why do these emails get delivered to my address when they are not addressed specifically to me? And how should I properly dispose of them?

Spammers do everything they can to get their garbage in front of you, and that means using and abusing every tool at their disposal.

One of those tools is also available to you and me when we send email.

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You were BCC’ed. The “BCC”, or “blind carbon copy” feature of email, allows email to be sent without displaying the recipient’s email address at all. Spammers often use this to hide some or all the actual recipients of a spam email message. A a result, you may receive spam email where your email address does not appear. Since it is spam, mark it as such and move on.

The BCC field

You were BCC’ed on the spam.

“BCC” stands for Blind Carbon Copy1, a technique to send an email without the recipient’s email address appearing in the message. You might use the BCC field when emailing a group of people so as not to share their email addresses without permission.

In addition to the To: and Cc: fields, email programs typically include a Bcc: field. Here’s an example in the Windows 10 Mail program.2

Bcc: field present in the Windows 10 Mail program
Bcc: field present in the Windows 10 Mail program. (Click for larger image.)

You can add email addresses to any of these fields.

  • To: is used for one or more direct recipients for the message.
  • Cc: is used for one or more recipients who also get the message. While the message is not directed at them, they also receive it. Often, people use this as an FYI to others to see the message. Any Cc: recipients are displayed in the message on the Cc: line.
  • Bcc: is used for one or more recipients who also get the message. This is exactly like Cc:, except that the list of people receiving the message via Bcc is not included in the message when it is sent.

Who was BCC’ed?

There is no way for a recipient to tell who was BCC’ed, how many were BCC’ed, or even if any Bcc: addresses were used when a message was sent. (There are sometimes ways you can see the BCC’ed recipients on a message you’ve sent.)

Spammers use this technique to send one message to perhaps hundreds of people at once, because listing all of those addresses as Cc: or To: makes the message more likely to be flagged as spam. Since there’s no way to tell when you get the message that Bcc: was used, you have no idea that hundreds of others might be getting the same message.

As just one example, those hundreds of messages might be what’s called a dictionary attack, meaning they try variations on email names in the hope that one or more will reach a real person. For example, they might3 try “leo@”, “leoa@”, “leob@”, and so on, on any of my domains. Some might work, some might not, but there’s no added cost to the spammer to try ’em all. Most will be hidden in the Bcc: you can’t see.

What you can or cannot do

Ultimately, there’s nothing you can really do about this specific situation.

Mark the message as spam if it’s landed in your inbox. Your spam filter will use other factors and characteristics of the message to update its database of what you (and perhaps others) consider spam. Mark these messages as spam enough times, and they should get routed to your spam folder automatically.

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Leo

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Footnotes & References

1: Some apparently know it as “Courtesy Copy”. “Carbon Copy” harkens back to the days of using carbon paper to automatically make copies as documents were typed in a typewriter. Look it up, kids. Smile

2: Not all email programs or interfaces show the Bcc line by default. You may need to click on an option or other user interface control to display it.

3: There is no “try”. They definitely “do”.

16 comments on “Why Do I Get Spam Not Addressed to Me? How Spammers Do It, and What Steps You Can Take”

  1. Although everything that was discussed is very interesting, I don’t believe that the question was answered.

    I don’t claim to know the exact answer to the question but, for example, I do know that gmail has this feature that if your email address is:

    myEmail@gmail.com

    you might type my.Email@gmail.com and for gmail both addresses are the same one. It can even go as far as being myEmail+someSite@gmail.com and gmail will still consider it to be the same address which is usefull since if one day you receive an email from an unknown source with this email address, you’ll know that “someSite” sold its emails database.

    Reply
  2. I have to agree with the above; I’m not sure the question was answered. I know of a couple of reasons that might produce the situation described, for instance, if the e-mail recipient happens to own the domain and their e-mail address is the “catch all” address for the domain.

    Also, spammers can fake most of the header information in their e-mails. I’d advise the questioner to check the “Envelope-to:” and “To:” lines in the e-mail’s header.

    Reply
  3. Not exactly the question raised here but perhaps a related issue….

    Not so much recently but in the past I received numerous crap emails seemingly addressed *from* me. (If my email address is, for example, abc@xyz.com the email would not only be addressed *to* that address but *from* that same address.)

    Concerned at first thinking someone was sending spam from my hijacked email address after some time I ceased being worried and simply figured the spam-sender’s program somehow simply did this by design — perhaps further enticing the recipient to open the email (after all, it was sent from me!).

    BTW – Either HTML tags on these boards don’t work for me or the effects of using them don’t show in the “Preview” window. I’m not sure which.

    Reply
  4. When I first used hotmail, I got hundreds of spam,phishing, and plain con e-mails [ including money scams ] then I loaded the ACMA submission page in my favorites.Every time I got crap – I passed the whole page to ACMA [ located in Canberra ] Their job is to track these scum, arrest them and prosecute. It’s been over a year now and I don’t get any spam EVER!!!. And I don’t even run any anti-spam programs; I guess when the federal police start knocking on doors, some people get the message 🙂

    Reply
  5. I’m confused. The answer does not match my experience. When I get one of these spam messages…there is nothing in the headers to indicate that the message is meant for my account. However, when people BCC me…there are headers in the message to indicate that the message is meant for my account. So I still do not understand how I keep getting spam email in my account when no header in the message indicates that it is for my account?

    Reply
  6. I read this article and also followed the link to “Why shouldn’t I use the “Report Spam” or “Junk” button?” I have been getting emails every day from a source that I KNOW I have not subscribed to. Perhaps I could open these and look for an unsubscribe option, or perhaps I could open these and find I am now infected with a virus. I choose to not open these and add to my Blocked Sender List and Bounce Back To Sender. It does not appear to do any good, but makes me feel better. What say you?

    Reply
  7. My span list has grown massively since I started using Facebook and I find my posts being reposted on other site pages. Can I sue FB??

    I’m guessing not, that the terms you agreed to when creating your facebook account gave them permission to do whatever, but I am no lawyer and I can’t hand out legal advice.

    Leo
    14-Dec-2011

    Reply
  8. Not particularly related to this question – Why is there a tab “Free Newsletter” sticking out and obscuring part of your news letter? (I have increased the web page to make it easier for me to read it!) I already receive your news letter!

    The website has no way to reliably tell that you are a newsletter subscriber. That tab moves out of the way automatically in IE9, Firefox and Chrome (and perhaps others). I’m working on a solution for IE8.

    Leo
    17-Dec-2011
    Reply
  9. Tom,

    I had the same problem until I learned this trick.

    When you add an address to the Blocked Senders list, do not include anything before the @ symbol. Frequently that stuff keeps changing, but what follows remains fairly constant.

    As an example, Me@mysite.com would be blocked simply as @mysite.com. That will block everything from mysite.com even if they change the “Me” portion.

    Reply
  10. alpha omega,

    I frequently BCC myself on business e-mail I send out so I’ll see exactly what the recipient(s) see. Also, it will be in my Inbox where it is easier to find.

    I just checked the source code for some I received from myself, and there was no BCC listed; only the From, To and CC. This was true of two e-mail clients.

    Perhaps those you see as being sent to you are CC instead of BCC.

    Reply
  11. Leo,
    When I get a doubtful email, I view the full header to know its origin and if from like serbia, vietnam etc I just delete it. In Gmail unless I open the mail I cannot see the full header, unlike in Yahoo mail. Suppose if I forward it to my Yahoo mail and check the full header, will the sender know I have opened his mail/spam ? I get very minimal spam and doubtful ones are extremely rare.

    Reply
  12. I received an email from an alleged Russian woman writing from a gmail account, but directed to an unfamiliar hotmail address. Even though the email was directed to an unfamiliar email address “unfamiliarname@hotmail.com”, I received it in my junk mail box. Maybe I was bcc’d in that email and it is a spam, but is it possible that my email account has been hacked?

    Reply

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