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Why Does My Email Sometimes Show Up with Funny Characters Like “=0D” In It?

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I’m one of the moderators on a large email discussion list. Quite often when we receive a message for approval it might be full of what I can only call “funny characters” or character sequences. They always begin with an equals sign, though. For example, things like =0D=0A and =3D appear throughout the message.

But wait, this gets even more odd. If we allow such a message to go through to our list, most members who receive the messages individually don’t see this oddness; messages look just fine to them. And yet, members who receive these messages in a periodic digest see the same funny characters as we moderators do.

What’s up what that?

You’d think that with plain-text email having been around for as long as it has, issues like this would have been resolved by now.

The problem is that there’s “plain text” email, and then there’s “plain text” email. That’s correct — not all “plain text” is created equal.

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Quoted-printable

When you see something like =3D, what you’re seeing is a single character of “quoted-printable” encoding.

“=3D” is, in fact, an equal sign. =0D is a Carriage Return (CR), =0A is a Line Feed (LF), and =0D=0A is a CRLF combination. CR, LF, and CRLF are all used to indicate the end of a line of text in plain text emails. In fact, any character can be represented as a three character “=” sequence in quoted-printable. “=41=73=6B=20=4C=65=6F=21”, for example, is “Ask Leo!” in full quoted-printable encoding.

Quoted-printable is one of several encodings used to get around the fact that not all mail software (and in the past, not all network transports) can handle what are called “non-printable” characters, or certain types of non-alphanumeric characters.

CR and LF, for example, don’t cause anything to be displayed; they just “mean something”: the end of a line. That’s why they’re called “non-printable”.

Non-printable characters in email messages can confuse some email software, particularly older, legacy systems. The work-around is to represent them in a way that doesn’t confuse the old mailers.

How mail programs identify quoted-printable

Email envelopeWhen an email message uses quoted-printable, one of the hidden headers — the information you don’t normally see — explicitly says so.

Content-Transfer-Encoding: quoted-printable

If you’re seeing the quoted-printable characters in their quoted-printable form, that header is either missing, malformed, or it’s been overlooked.

In the case of your mailing list, the approvals are likely arriving in some kind of “raw” form. Your mailing list software has probably removed or overridden the header information.  As a result, your mail program doesn’t know that it should decode the encoded characters. It sees it as unencoded plain text email and displays it as-is.

Digests are special

A digest is a collection of emails bundled into a single message. Rather than getting a number of individual messages, many mailing lists allow you to get a digest version instead. It arrives less frequently, but includes multiple messages instead of just one.

The “problem” is that not all messages are encoded using “quoted-printable”.

In theory, I suppose, the mailing list software could try to normalize: understand the encoding used and convert it to a single standard which it would then use to send the digest. Since I’ve never seen that happen, I assume there’s some reason this can’t be done.

As a result, all messages are collected into each digest in raw form.

What to do

If you’re a list owner or moderator, there’s not much you can do for the list itself.

As a recipient, you may have some options. Some mailing list software has multiple types of digesting, some of which may handle the situation better. One list that I’m on, for example, creates a digest that contains the individual messages as “.eml” attachments, which preserve each message in its original form. Unfortunately, it’s more difficult to read, as you need to open each attachment individually.

Fortunately, in recent years mail servers and software have progressed to the point where this isn’t the issue it once was. Unfortunately, though, it still remains in some corners of the email world, particularly with older mailing-list software.

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34 comments on “Why Does My Email Sometimes Show Up with Funny Characters Like “=0D” In It?”

  1. My emails from Vista, Windows Mail have like a paragrapgh of what looks like Chinese letters. I use this for business, am looking for a job and it’s getting embarrassing, especially when I send out a resume.
    Thanks,
    Tom

    • It may sound harsh but you might want to get a more recent email program. Are you still running Windows Vista?
      Are you using your ISP’s email?
      You might want to consider opening a Gmail account and having it read whatever account you are using, then using its online system for reading and writing emails.

  2. I have very long been familiar with mail headers; I’ve LONG ago become all-to-acquainted with the:

                                    Content-Type: “Quoted-Printable; Format-Flowed”

    header line. I use Unix Pine, which does NOT always correctly decode Quoted-Printable, and to say that I HATE, DETEST, and LOATHE this encoding would be a vast understatement. Even more insidiously, Pine may correctly decode the E-Mail within the viewer, but God help me if I try to export the message as text! When I open the message later to read it — what a nasty surprise, because Pine does NOT decode on Export, it merely writes the message “as-is”! Aaarrrrggghhh!!!

    Pine will (alas!) happily ENCODE Quoted-Printable, so if by chance I make some kind of ghastly misstep with my own text, that’s how my E-Mail may go out, any settings of mine to the contrary notwithstanding. That is something I try VERY hard to avoid, GRRRRR!

  3. Here some info that I found with this problem: after much troubleshooting, I found in Windows mail my staionary was set to “My Stationary” which apparently had some bad code in it which produced the Chinese characters. In Windows Mail, go to TOOLS-OPTIONS tab, select COMPOSE tab, then try changing, or unchecking the “Mail” “Stationary” tab, click APPLY, and try it. This solved my problem, after which I deleted the My Stationary file by right clicking on ot, and choosing delete. Hope this problem is gone for good!

  4. I’ve read the article but it does not address the problem I’m having. Mine is the email I am receiving from someone has the letter A scattered throughout the text. Is it the senders computer problem or is it mine?

    Typically the senders, but it’s extremely difficult to say with certainty.

    Leo
    24-Nov-2011
  5. FYI, if you’ve got any skill with PHP, you can take the whole mess, run quoted_printable_decode() on it, and output the results to a file to strip out all that craziness.

  6. I solved the problem of weird characters in email I receive in Outlook Express by unchecking the box labeled “Use default encoding for all incoming messages” in the International Settings section of the Fonts box on the Read tab under the Tools / Options menus. I proved it by toggling that setting off and on and off again. Don’t know if it works for anything other than Outlook Express…….

  7. I am using thunderbird 31.1.2 and have lot of problems :
    In the incoming mails some times Iam getting special charactersl like ”              ” etc and some times â€â€â€â€â€â€ in between the text which is very much annoying. Character encoding used by me is WESTERN ISO 8859-1 and in tools>options>display > formatting>advanced >fonts encoding i have unchecked allo messages to use other fonts but still same problem. So pls somebody help me out.

  8. When I forward pictures some of my recipients (but not all) sometimes get a screen full of chinese-looking or other odd characters. I also tried to copy some photos from my camera onto a USB memory stick and got an error that some of the filenames were too long. There were some folders and files (that I didn’t select) that had odd characters and I couldn’t delete THEM because they “were invalid or too long”. I tried to use DOS to delete them with the same result. I did a virus and trojan scan which came up empty.

  9. I had this displayed on my iPad email page/go/ 4S5fRXhpZgAA TUOAKgAAAgAB QEa AAUAAAAB AAAA Sg EbAAUA and so on . A whole page full of this letters and numbers. After a while it disappears. I don’t know what this is, could it be a SPAM or something like that? . Thanks in advance. yours sincerely Thomas Brunner

  10. I have been struggling with receiving emails in Outlook 2007 riddled with    symbols throughout and cannot find a clear way to fix the issue.
    I have a strong tech background, have tried many settings adjustments and am amazed by the lack of solutions on the web.
    If anyone has experience with this issue or resolution, I’d be very appreciative to hear about it.
    Thanks!!!

    • The first thing to check is the size of your PST file. You may need to compact it. Also, check to disable all plugins. 2007 is pretty old and there may be things that are conflicting in there.

  11. Thanks Connie. Not sure how the size of my pst file could affect my incoming emails but it’s a good idea to check it anyway.
    Didn’t think about the plugins, which I could see the potential.
    Thanks again for the input.

  12. My boss uses a mac, I am PC, he sends me his contacts to add to my contacts, but when he does, it adds a character to the phone number (405) 555-5555, why is this happening, I sure could use help

    • There is often an incompatibility problem between different platforms and programs. Your only solution might just be to manually fix these entries. And probably consider yourself lucky you can at least read the phone number at all. I’ve had worse problems sometimes importing contacts into an email program.

  13. I’m on a MacBook Air and use Safari – and am on AOL, and contribute regularly to a list service since many years. Just recently I was informed by another list member (also on AOL) that she receives my posts (and a few others, also on AOL) in this garbled form – which you mention in this article above – while most others receive my posts clearly. So, is it something that I can or need to do as the sender of my posts – and if so, what? Or, is it something that she as the recipient needs to do on her end?

  14. I am using Windows 10 through Google Chrome, When I forward someone an email that I received, it comes out like computer language. Is there a reason for this and can I fix it?

    Thanks, Jeanette

    • Windows 10 and Google Chrome are not email programs or interfaces (Windows 10 is the operating system that runs your computer, and Chrome is the browser that displays web pages). So I’d need to know exactly how you access your email, and the exact steps you use to forward an email (and perhaps even to what email system THEY are using).

  15. When I try to contact Hipstamps & a few other companies, At the end to confirm who I am you must print some FUNNY looking charters . I never can get past this .Please help.
    Joe – zipstamps

  16. I receive some emails with the message in a vertical line instead of normal sentences and paragraphs. How can I correct this to better be able to read the content?

  17. First Name : 5c2f9b055d2e2
    Last Name : 5c2f9b055d321

    lately I have been receiving emails from my facebook ad I created and instead of there names I receive these alphanumerical names for both the first and last names. Why has this happened?

  18. I have ” Chinese” writing in my emails. How do I get rid of them. It seems that it is only on the delete marks, and centre of page

  19. My I MAC emails I open that are from INDEED.com and Southwest Airlines, etc this type websites come up in HTML unreadable instead of PLAIN text. How do I solve this problem. My emails from friends come up in Plain text just companies ones off.

    Thank you

  20. Hi,
    Some emails sent to me by my sister are fine, but others have absolutely no text in the body of the email. She uses the same computer email setup each time, so no variation in source, and while all emails arrive okay, as mentioned, not all have text in them.
    I don’t have this problem with anyone else.
    Any ideas?
    Thanks, Regards, Jim.

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