Sometimes, my email bounces. Every so often, I’ll send a message, and a short time later, I’ll receive a reply saying that the email failed to go through. Why does it happen? And how do I fix it?
Well, I’m afraid that there are many reasons why mail could bounce. In fact, there are so many ways how it could fail that sometimes I’m amazed that it works at all. But it definitely works most of the time, and one of the ways that it works is that very bounce message that you get.
You see, there’s gold in that bounce message. It’s not only telling you that your message didn’t go through, but if you look a little closer, you’ll see it’s trying to tell you why.
Bounce messages can vary in format and in exact wording, depending on the mail server that’s sending the message back to you. Different types of mail servers use different terminology. Some are quite geeky and difficult to understand. Others seem to take five paragraphs to tell you that you probably just mistyped the email address that you were sending to.
What I’ll do here is list some of the most common messages, what they mean, and what you can do. Remember, though – a message that you get may not be worded exactly as I list it here. You’ll have to look carefully at the bounce message that you receive and see which of these it’s most like.
Examining a bounce
First, let’s look at a couple of bounce messages. Buried in the all the geekery, I’ve highlighted a couple of important things:
----- The following addresses had permanent fatal errors ----- <email@example.com> (reason: 553 sorry, relaying denied from your location [10.10.10.10] (#5.7)) ----- Transcript of session follows ----- ... while talking to smtp.example.net.: >>>> DATA <<< 553 sorry, relaying denied from your location [10.10.10.10] (#5.7.1) 550 5.1.1 <firstname.lastname@example.org>... User unknown <<< 503 RCPT first (#5.5.1)
Here’s a bounce from another mail server which attempts to be more friendly:
Hi. This is the qmail-send program at example.com. I'm afraid I wasn't able to deliver your message to the following addresses. This is a permanent error; I've given up. Sorry it didn't work out. <email@example.com>: 10.10.10.10. does not like recipient. Remote host said: 550 MAILBOX NOT FOUND Giving up on 10.10.10.10.
The messages “MAILBOX NOT FOUND” or “User unknown” are key and might actually be any of several different messages depending on the reason for the failure.
Common error messages
Mailbox Not Found, invalid mailbox, User unknown, not our customer: these are all saying pretty much the same thing. In the “firstname.lastname@example.org” bounce examples above, the mail server “example.com” doesn’t have an account for anyone with the email name “someone”. A couple of common reasons:
- You typed the email address wrong. The single most common reason this error happens is simply that you made a typographical error in the email name. Check the entire email address for an error.
- It’s an old email address that’s no longer in use. Perhaps the person that you’re attempting to email has changed their email address and you’re using an old one which is no longer valid. Make sure that what you’re using is up to date.
Mailbox unavailable: Nine times out of 10, this is the same as “mailbox not found.” That other 10% of the time, it could mean that there’s a problem with the recipient’s email account. What kind of problem is hard to say. Check to make sure that you have the email address correct, wait a while, and try again; if it still bounces, try contacting the recipient some other way.
Mailbox full, or Quota Exceeded: sometimes this will show up as a part of a “Mailbox unavailable” message. It’s fairly clear, though: your recipient has too much email and their server isn’t accepting any more. This is common with services that have limits on how much mail you can accumulate. This can also be a sign of an abandoned account – someone’s stopped looking at and cleaning out the email. In any case, you’ll need to try to contact your recipient through some other email account, or some other way.
Host unknown, Domain Lookup Failed: this means that the mail server that you’re attempting to use, the “example.com” part in the examples above, doesn’t exist. A common reason is again, a typo on your part. Make sure that you typed it in correctly. Another reason is the ISPs that change their name. The largest example of this in recent memory has been “attbi.com” changing their name to “comcast.com”. Anyone trying to send to an old “attbi.com” email address might get this message in return.
Unable to Relay: this is a terribly obscure error message, but also becoming more and more common as ISPs try to crack down on spam. Mail is sent by relaying email from one server to the next. There could be many servers involved, but typically, it’s the mail server at your ISP relaying your email to the mail server at your recipients ISP.
In general, a mail server must “know” either the sender of an email, or its recipient, in order to safely transmit mail. Mail servers that do not enforce this requirement are called “open relays” and can be exploited by spammers to send out tons of spam.
Things get complicated because not all ISPs agree on what it means to “know” the sender of an email. All of these might result in an “unable to relay” message, depending entirely on the servers and ISPs involved:
- The From address might not match an account on the email server.
- The ISP might require that email comes via a connection (dial up or DSL) actually provided by the ISP – sending someone else’s connection might not be allowed.
- The ISP might require you to authenticate before sending email and you haven’t.
- A mail server somewhere could be misconfigured.
There’s no blanket answer if “unable to relay” happens only occasionally. Double-check the email address that you’re sending to, for starters.
Temporary Errors: errors like “no adequate servers”, “Connection Timed Out,” “Resources temporarily unavailable,” and “Out of memory” all typically indicate a problem with a mail server that you probably don’t have any control over. They are, in general, temporary, and should resolve themselves over time. Look carefully at the bounce message; the email server involved may continue to automatically try to deliver your email without any action required on your part.
Blacklist Filters: If you see messages that indicate your email was “blocked,” or “listed in,” and references to sites that have things like “spamcop,” “dynablock,” “blackhole,” “spamhaus,” and similar in their names, then your email was probably intentionally blocked because the receiving system thinks your ISP’s mail server is a source of spam.
Various blacklisting services try to identify servers which are sources of spam. They then make that list available to ISPs, who in turn can block email coming from these sources. The problem is that criteria for addition and removal from these blacklists is vague, at best, and getting a server removed from blacklists can be very difficult. If this happens to mail that you send, get in touch with your ISP and explain that their server may be on a blacklist somewhere, and then try to use a different email address, or a different email account of your own, to contact your intended recipient. You might also tell your recipient that their ISP is improperly blocking legitimate email.
Content filters: Much like blacklists, content filters are an approach that many ISPs now implement to stem the tide of spam for their clients. Most will simply discard email that looks like spam, as I discussed in Why is my mail to this person not getting through?, but some servers will actually send a bounce. Phrases in the bounce message like “Message looks like spam,” “Keywords rejected by the antispam content filter,” “Scored too high on spam scale,” and similar means that your email, for whatever reason, tripped the spam filters on the receiving end. Your email looks too much like spam.
What does it mean to “look like spam”? Here, again, things get vague. That definition will vary greatly based on how your recipient’s email server has been configured. Obvious possibilities are the use of pornographic words or phrases, HTML formatted email, currently popular drugs being hawked by spammers, or even having something that looks too much like a sales letter or a scam. The best approach is to scan the bounce for any clues (sometimes there’s more information), and then validate your recipient can get any email by sending a simpler message. Assuming that all works, then re-work your message as best you can to not look like spam.
How long is “a while”?
One of the most common solutions for just about any bouncing email problem (after checking that you’re sending to the right address) is to “Wait a while and try again.” The email system, while somewhat random, is also somewhat self-healing. If there’s an email server with a problem, chances are it’ll get fixed or eventually bypassed, especially if it belongs to a larger ISP. For temporary problems, as noted above, email servers will typically keep trying for up to four days before giving up.
My rule of thumb for trying email again is “one hour, one day, one week.” In other words, try again in an hour. There are classes of problems that will resolve themselves that quickly. If that still fails, then I’ll try again the next day. If that still fails (and my message can wait that long), I’ll try again in a week. If that still fails … I need to find another way to get my message to my recipient.
When a bounce isn’t really a bounce
Be careful! There’s a class of viruses these days that propagate by “looking like” bounce messages. They instruct you to open an attachment for more information. Don’t. Especially if you don’t recall sending the message in the first place. Don’t open any attachment, especially one accompanying what looks like an email bounce unless you are absolutely positively certain that it’s legitimate.
You may also be getting bounce messages for email that you didn’t send. There’s another class of virus that “spoofs” or fakes the From address on email messages; as a result, you could be getting bounce messages that have nothing to do with you. This scenario is sadly common and I’ve written about it in a separate article: Someone’s sending from my email address! How do I stop them?!.
Finally, if every email that you send bounces, then you probably have a different problem. Chances are your email client is misconfigured. Double-check outgoing or SMTP server settings and double-check with your ISP to ensure that you have them set correctly.
Thank you to Tom Kulzer of AWeber Systems for some of the information incorporated into this article.