Hotmail (now Outlook.com) is one of the most used and abused mail systems on the planet.
The problem is much greater than Outlook.com, though. Almost any free email service can be abused like this.
And very few, if any, will help you find out who owns an email address on their system.
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- It’s easy to create an email account with false information.
- “From:” addresses are also easily faked.
- The IP address is both imprecise and easily obscured.
- Even when information is not fake, email services will not divulge it.
- Law enforcement may be able to compel disclosure, if warranted.
- You might simply ask, or search for the email address online.
- Avoid online services claiming to find people.
- Simplest is to delete, mark as spam, or set up a filter to dispose of such messages.
It’s so easy!
First, let’s look at why it’s so hard to determine the real owner of a free email account.
Sign up for a new account at your favorite provider, and as you’re doing so, lie about everything. Make up every bit of information it asks for when creating the account. Make sure it’s all completely bogus.1
When you’re done, you’ll have a working email account with no information relating to you in any way. None.
So if someone creates a free email account this way, there’s no way to tell who they really are from the account information, because they could have made it all up.
“From:” isn’t always from
It’s important to realize that the “From:” address on an email is also easily faked.
What this means is that the email address you see there might have had nothing at all to do with the email you just got. Even if you were able to somehow track down that email address’s owner, they would have no idea what you were talking about, since they didn’t send the email.
This is exceptionally common in spam, and I discuss it further in “From” Spoofing: How Spammers Send Email that Looks Like It Came from You.
What about the IP address?
There’s one, small, thin thread of information that might give a clue: the IP address from which the account was created, or from which it’s being signed into.
Chances are it won’t help at all. Even if you know the IP address, it doesn’t tell you nearly enough. I have more detail in What Can People Tell from My IP Address?, but in summary:
- Public IP address information does not specify a name or specific location. It specifies a device — usually a router somewhere — connected to the internet. All the computers in a home, a library, or a company could appear to be at the same IP address of the router that they share.
- The IP address can also be faked or hidden using a VPN service or TOR, and of course the IP address could change.
- You’d need the email service to tell you the IP address used, which, for reasons of privacy, they would not.
About that privacy thing
Privacy is a double-edged sword. We want our privacy, but we’re more than willing to breach someone else’s privacy if we feel threatened or think they’ve wronged us.
I’m sure you don’t want random people tracking you down by your email address, and yet that’s exactly what you’re asking to do here.
Email service providers have no idea whether your complaint is legitimate or not. They have no way to evaluate whether you should be allowed to see the information you might request. The result is, even if the account in question was created with totally accurate information with no real attempt to hide anything, email services will not give you any information beyond what the account holder chooses to make public2.
If the emails you’re getting run afoul of some law in your jurisdiction3, you can contact the police or other appropriate authorities.
In fact, I probably would. (Caveat: I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.)
The issue, of course, is that what you consider “strange”, annoying, or even harassing may not meet be illegal in the eyes of the law. Put another way, that email you’re concerned about might be totally legal.
Only an attorney or the police can advise you on that.
If it does meet the criteria to be illegal, then law enforcement might be able to get a court order to have the service release the information — if the information is even available.
Straws to grasp at
There are two things in your control you might try. I don’t recommend them, but want to include them to be complete.
You might just ask. Depending on the nature of the email, you might reply and ask who this person is. The risk, and the reason I don’t recommend this, is you might be replying to spam, and will get more spam as a result, or you might be replying to a scammer, who’ll then use the opportunity to string you along further. That’s why I say this approach really depends on the nature of the email.
You might search for the email address. The reason I don’t recommend this is that, as I mentioned above, the “From:” address could be fake, and any information you find online will have nothing to do with your situation. On the other hand, I’ve occasionally found surprising amounts of information simply by Googling an email address.
Straws to avoid
Avoid online services claiming to find people.
When you search for an email address or name, you’re likely to encounter ads for services that claim to be able to find anyone. Some may be legitimate, but will string you along until you find they require payment to get the results they supposedly have. Others are scams, and skip right to the “require payment” step.
This is where a quick phone call to your attorney might be in order. If nothing else, they may be able to either perform the search using trusted tools they have access to, or recommend a tool for you to use directly.
The pragmatic bottom line
The pragmatic answer is no, you cannot tell who owns an email account if they don’t want to be found.
If you’re receiving harassing, threatening, or otherwise potentially illegal email, then by all means, involve the appropriate authorities in your area.
Otherwise, I recommend you mark the email as spam or junk, or just remember the Delete key is your friend. I would delete the mail immediately and ignore it completely.
If the problem persists and it’s from the same sender, then if your email program supports it, I’d create a rule or filter to automatically delete the email from that address as it arrives.