The reasons it’s hard and the steps to take.
You probably don’t.
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.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
Finding the owner of an email address
You probably cannot.
- It’s easy to create an email account with false information.
- It’s easy to fake the “From:” address.
- IP addresses are 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.
- Best practice 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 actual owner of a free email account.
Sign up for a new account at your favorite free 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.
There’s no way to tell who the owner of a free email account is from the account information.
“From:” isn’t always from
It’s trivially easy to fake the “From:” address on an email.
What this means is the email address you see might have nothing at all to do with the email. Even if you could 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 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 business could appear to be at the same IP address of the router they share.
- The IP address can also be 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 do not know whether or not your complaint is legitimate. They have no way to evaluate whether they should allow you to see the information you’re requesting. The result is, even if the account in question was created with totally accurate information with no attempt to hide anything, email services will not give you any information beyond what the account holder makes public.2
If the emails you’re getting run afoul of some law in your jurisdiction, 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 be illegal. 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 meets the criteria to be illegal, then law enforcement might get a court order to have the service release the information — if the information is even available and if it’s serious enough for them to spend their limited resources on it.
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 email, you might reply and ask who this person is. The risk, and the reason I don’t recommend this, is you’re probably replying to spam and will get more spam as a result, or you might reply 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 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 for you.
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 “payment required” 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 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 involve the authorities.
Otherwise, I recommend you mark the email as spam or junk and remember that 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 auto-delete the email from that address as it arrives.
Want email from someone you know? How about subscribing to Confident Computing? Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.