Why do people I don’t know email me?

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My friend has had her Gmail address for maybe 5 years. She regularly gets emails, which are sent to that address but are from people whom she has never heard of and who obviously don’t know her. It’s not always the same person. I’ve had my Gmail address for even longer and I’ve never, never had such an occurrence. What’s going on?

This is actually more common than you might think. There are two possibilities: spam and human error.

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Spam or not

What you describe actually sounds a lot like spam: email from people you’ve never heard of.

Now I’m going to assume from your question that the email your friend is getting doesn’t look like spam: it’s not trying to sell you anything, ask you for money, or get you to click a link. If it doesn’t look like spam it’s probably not spam, though emails that don’t look like spam can still sometimes be used as probes to see if an email address might be valid.

No SPAM!Now, why is she getting emails from strangers and you’re not? My guess is she may have put her email address out in more public places than you have. For example, if you regularly post your email address in comments on websites, or anywhere that could be published publicly on the internet, spammers will harvest email addresses from those pages and start sending them spam. Perhaps you’ve been a little bit more circumspect about how you publish or when you publish your own email address.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it’s not spam.

Mistakes or not

What I really think is going on here is that your friend probably has what I call “the curse” of having a simple email address. The email address consists of a relatively common last name @gmail.com.

My guess is that the senders are intending to email other people with that last name, and just getting it wrong. In fact, it reminds me of years ago when we had a phone number that was one digit off from our local poison control line. People would call us thinking that they were reaching Poison Control.1 That same kind of thing can happen with email.

Typing it incorrectly is just one possibility. Making assumptions is another.

A lot of people will assume that, for example, if someone’s name is John Smith, his email address is probably johnsmith@ the email service. But people make mistakes.

My Gmail address actually isn’t really all that common, and yet I still get occasional email that is clearly targeted at someone else.

Reply or not

Of course, there’s a temptation to reply to correct people’s errors.

Maybe I’m too cynical, but I actually don’t recommend that. You really don’t have any idea who you are talking to and ultimately, as I said, you could be giving spammers more ammunition. If the person at the other end of the email is really a spammer, your response says to them “You know what, this email address I sent email to, it’s real. There’s a real person reading it so let’s send it some more spam.”

Footnotes & references

1: Rather than give up the number and risk have it reassigned to someone less courteous, we would calmly inform people of their error, give them the correct number and wish them well. The poison control number was later changed to something completely different, hopefully something less error-prone.

16 comments on “Why do people I don’t know email me?”

  1. Another possibility — much greater, in my opinion — is that someone has forwarded an email to a lot of folks and didn’t delete the email addresses of folks who had been “in the chain” before them and/or failed to use “BCC.” This is one of my biggest pet peeves. I sometimes get emails with three or more groups of previous recipients and most of the time I know none of them. This is a gold mine for spammers and folks do their friends no favors by not deleting the prior addresses before forwarding.

  2. Hi,Leo
    Every day I found some emails and messages which come from a people I don’t know even I contacted before,most of that emails comes from ladies whose invite me to visit their sites such as sex sites,then I prefer to unsubscribe but unfortunately we have not any contact before but the only one way is to delete I surprise where they found my email so I suspected them that they are spam or hacker.Leo if I ask you a question how I can stop these emails I don’t know?

    • This is just spam. You cannot stop it and you should NEVER click on “unsubscribe” from spam – that just confirms that you’re a real person and you’ll get MORE spam. Mark the messages as spam in your email program and move on.

      • Hi ,
        If it`s just spam then why is it hard to reply back to them, and why is it of a personal tone ? Spam always has some kind of link in them . These have nothing ! I`ve gotten multiple subjects . I went into their sent from box , and saw they all have at least 5 different Email address and only one will hit ! It`s bazar to say the least and just a we bit unsettling when a few of them have my real name .

        • They don’t WANT you to reply to them. That’s why they use fake addresses. It’s typically all about the information in the message. Some spam has specific email addresses in the message body, some have phone numbers, others have links. Others are just probes to see if the email even gets delivered and may have nothing at all. There’s no use in trying to make sense of spam. Seriously. Mark it as spam, and move on with your life. 🙂

        • Hi I’m having the same problem they keep asking if I’m around certain areas and would I like to meet my girlfriend thinks I’m inviting these emails and maybe meeting girls for sex it’s ruining our relationship I don’t know how they got my email address and I can’t stop it there’s never a link or return address I don’t understand could it be from visiting porn sites ? Which I’ll admit I have on occasions please help me to understand???

  3. One of my email addresses is my first and last name separated by a “dot”, @gmail.com. I sometimes get email addressed to someone in another part of the country who has the same name, but with no “dot” in the middle. On these emails there is sometimes a “this email was sent to”, which clearly shows that it was sent to an address that is NOT mine (it lacks the “dot”), but I still get it. I think this is a failure at gmail, who can’t seem to recognize the presence or absence of the dot. I have advised gmail’s help system of this issue, but they have never responded or resolved the issue. I feel bad for the other fellow’s mssing some of his emails, and wonder if some of mine may be going to HIM. Suggestions?

    • Actually that’s a feature of gmail. The dot is explicitly ignored (it’s in the gmail documentation somewhere). TO be clear there is one and only one account, it is yours, no matter where the dot appears. Others who are sending to that are mistyping an email address. I get it too.

  4. Hi Leo, my husband has been getting these emails that only appear in the spam folder. The one I saw yesterday was one that said Samantha G sent you a message. It had a picture of an attractive woman on it and a link to click on so I can view the message. But when I did it sent me straight to google. Then at the bottom it said this message was sent automatically because you have a message pending on our system. The company was Mega Dating LLC. But when I looked it up, it doesn’t exist!! My question is, was that some form of spam?

  5. I’m finding emails that go in both my spam and inbox folders. They are women who are from another county wanting to be in a relationship and send pictures. They write a long drawn out email explaining everything in detail. There’s no link in the email (yet). From what I’ve been researching. It is spam, just doesn’t show until later after they take your money and time. Have you heard of this being spam before?

  6. I had an email from someone I didn’t know and it was marked as spam. I unfortunately opened it and it was really nasty. Telling me to F off and never speak to them again, they’ll never forgive me etc but they compounded it with ‘you don’t want to see the bad side of me, just ask your goddamn sister’ I recently lost my sister, so you can imagine this upset me. I ended up replying with ‘Who are you? My sister is dead!’ I’ve not heard anything back. I know my sister and I have never done anything bad. Is this spam? Why would anyone do this? It’s really upset me.

    • Replying to that kind of email can be very risky. The response verifies to the sender that your email is a valid address and can open you up to more spam. Is this spam:? That question is answered in the article. Why would anyone do that? Same as the answer to the question Why are people bad?

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