So many reasons your email might come back to you.
There are many reasons mail can bounce. In fact, there are so many ways it can fail, sometimes I’m amazed it works at all.
But it definitely works most of the time, and one way it works is that very bounce message you get.
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.
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Why email bounces
The most common reason an email returns to you as undeliverable, or bounces, is that the email address you’re sending it to is invalid. Make sure it’s correct. Other errors include abandoned email accounts, domains that change, mail quotas that have been exceeded, and more. In addition, there are a variety of transient errors that resolve themselves given enough time. Make certain to examine the entire bounce message for clues.
Examining an email bounce
Email bounce messages vary in format and wording depending on the mail server sending the message back to you. Different mail servers use different terminology. Some are quite geeky and difficult to understand. Others seem to take five paragraphs to say that you probably mistyped the email address.
I’ll list some of the most common messages, what they mean, and what you can do. Remember, though, that a message you get may not be worded exactly as I list it here. Look carefully at the bounce message you receive and see which of these it’s most like.
First, let’s look at a couple of bounce messages that came back after having been emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 that 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 words “MAILBOX NOT FOUND” or “User unknown” are key, and might be expressed with different words depending on the reason for the failure. Note that the bounce message includes the email address you attempted to send it to, so it’s easy to see if you typed it incorrectly.
Common error messages
Mailbox not found, invalid mailbox, user unknown, not our customer
These are all saying 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 “somewhere”. A couple of common reasons:
- You typed the email address wrong. The most common reason for this is that you made a typographical error in the email address. Check the entire email address for error.
- It’s an old email address no longer in use. Perhaps the person 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.
Nine times out of 10, this is the same as “mailbox not found.” The other 10% of the time it could mean there’s a problem with the recipient’s email account. What kind of problem is hard to say.
Make sure you have the email address correct, wait a while, and try again; if it still bounces, contact the recipient some other way.
Mailbox full, quota exceeded
Sometimes this shows 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 limit how much mail you can accumulate.
This is also often a sign of an abandoned account: someone’s stopped looking at and cleaning out their email. You need to contact your recipient through some other email account or in some other way.
Host unknown, domain lookup failed
This means that the mail server you’re attempting to use — the “example.com” part in the examples above — doesn’t exist. A common reason, again, is a typo on your part. Make sure you typed it in correctly.
Another reason is that ISPs change their names, such as when “attbi.com” changed 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 resulting from ISPs trying to crack down on spam. Relays send email from one server to the next. There may be many servers involved, but typically it’s the mail server at your ISP relaying your email to the mail server at your recipient’s ISP.
A mail server must directly “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 are 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 come via a connection (dial up or DSL) actually provided by the ISP; sending using 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 mis-configured.
There’s no blanket answer if “unable to relay” happens only occasionally. Always start by double-checking the email address you’re sending to.
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 have no control over. They are usually 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 with no action required on your part.
If you see messages indicating 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 that 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 are vague, and getting a server removed from blacklists can be very difficult.
If this happens to mail you send, get in touch with your ISP and explain that their server may be on a blacklist somewhere. 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.
Much like blacklists, content filters are an approach many ISPs use to stem the tide of spam for their clients. Most simply discard email that looks like spam, as I discussed in Why Is My Mail to this Person Not Getting Through?, but some servers 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.
What does it mean to “look like spam”? Here again, things get vague. That definition varies based on how your recipient’s email server is configured. Obvious possibilities that contribute to spam-like characteristics are the use of pornographic words or phrases, currently popular drugs being hawked by spammers, or even looking too much like a sales letter or a scam.
The best approach is to scan the bounce for clues and then make sure your recipient can get your email by sending a simpler message. Assuming that all works, re-work your message as best you can to not look like spam.
How long is awhile?
One of the most common solutions for just about any email bounce (after checking that you’re sending to the right address) is “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 typically keep trying for up to four or five days before giving up.
My rule of thumb for trying again is “One hour, one day, one week.” Try again in an hour. There are classes of problems that will resolve themselves that quickly. If that still fails, 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 after all that it still fails, I need to find another way to get my message to my recipient.
When an email bounce isn’t really a bounce
Be careful! There’s a class of viruses that propagate by “looking like” bounce messages. They instruct you to open an attachment for more information.
Don’t do it, 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 100% certain that it’s legitimate.
You may also get bounce messages for email 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 get 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 you send bounces, you probably have a different problem. Chances are your email client is mis-configured. Double-check outgoing or SMTP server settings and check with your ISP to ensure that you have them set correctly.
Check the email addresses you are sending to and make sure to read any bounce messages carefully and completely. They often try to tell you what’s wrong.
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