Identity Slippage, and what’s the weirdest thing you’ve been e-mailed by accident?

I have an old, short, and concise gmail address (my first initial and last name at gmail.com). There are many other hmasons in the world who have since signed up for gmail, with variations on the “hmason” theme. Every so often, they mistype the address, or someone mishears it. I now receive between four and ten pieces of e-mail per week meant for other hmasons. This was pretty amusing until someone opened an amazon account on that address (which I had to shut down). Poor Holly has never seen a single Citibank credit card statement (and Citibank won’t remove the e-mail address from the account when I call, since I’m not the account holder). Heidi hasn’t linked her Paypal account to her bank account, but I’m waiting for someone to send her money.

This sort of unwitting misattribution results in an identity slippage that could actually have some fairly interesting consequences. We’ve settled on e-mail as a unique identifier across platforms, but we increasingly cannot rely on that assumption.

I saw Chris Adam‘s comment on Twitter this morning and can’t agree more — it should become standard practice to confirm an e-mail address before sending personally identifiable or sensitive data. Now, please.


  • http://twitter.com/joelgrus Joel Grus

    My publishing company has the same name as a village in the UK.  My address is .com, theirs is .co.uk.  I routinely get email intended for them, mostly having to do with the purchase and sale of horses.

  • http://twitter.com/RStapletonGray Ross Stapleton-Gray

    I’ve run embassy.org since 1995, and regularly get e-mail at several addresses there from folks assuming I am representing a particular embassy or other, correspond for ambassador so and so, etc. I recently got a note from a staffer at DHS looking to have me set up a meeting with the director of ICE and the ambassador of one of the Caribbean nations, and I was sorely tempted to “set one up” in one of the seedier spots in D.C. and tip off anyone who’d like to watch the nation’s top customs and immigration official meandering about a gritty urban cityscape. But pity (and risk of prosecution for fraud) stayed my hand.

  • http://twitter.com/tsclausing T. Scot Clausing

    Reminds me of an article I read recently: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2011/09/doppelganger-domains/

  • AF

    Mine is nowhere near that bad (I didn’t get first-initial-last-name, I had to reverse the order) but  I get gmail correspondence all the time from people either looking for someone else with my last name/first initial or emails from people who are just looking for the last name that is my last name with the first initial on the end.

    The weird thing is that they are all eastern european. Mostly Hungary, Czech Republic, and Poland, with a smattering of Germany. I have gotten family photographs, a woman who thought I was a plastic surgeon trying to plan a boob job with me, a very nice Hungarian family trying to plan a holiday trip with me, and a smattering of advertisements. I always try to politely reply to the personal emails in english and then a google translate into the language they used. Occasionally I get apologies and the woman that sent me family photos asked me to delete them, which I did. I can’t imagine what would happen if I had actually gotten my first initial last name gmail address, which as far as I know doesn’t appear anywhere on the internet but someone has it.

  • http://absono.us whitneymcn

    I haven’t dealt with this in quite some time, since my personal email has been at absono.us (or alienabductions.com before that) for quite a few years.

     My experience is probably one that’s dying out these days: back when my email address was whitney@whatevermyispwasbackthen.com, I used to get email pretty regularly for a former “resident” of that address. 

    I hadn’t thought before about the kind of email identity slippage you’ve brought up, which is a very different and rather more complicated situation. Thanks, musing…

  • Lance Jonn Romanoff

    My gmail account is my last name only @ gmail.  As a consequence, the amount of wrongly delivered email has increased several-fold over the last couple of years.  I had a long correspondence with a Manhattan based appliance delivery company looking for payment of a bill by one of their customers where they simply did not understand that I was not the person they were after.

  • http://twitter.com/klogram Ken Graham

    I’ve had people argue with me when I tell them about the mistake and ask them to check their address.

  • http://www.nycresistor.com William Ward

    I get a lot of quotes for repairs to a skyscraper’s air conditioning system – made stranger still because the building is not far from my apartment.  They’ve been coming in for over a year.  I presume they sort it out from time to time but someone’s auto-complete is probably still kicking in.

    I’m also an honorary (apparently) member of another family with the same surname, and occasionally the Aunt sends exciting messages.

    I’m also an Acura owner, apparently, and have a child in a middle school in Alexandria that I was unaware of until now – which may say something about my business trip to Alexandria awhile back.

    This is to my infrequently used Google mail address.  I never get such interesting mail at my 13 year old pobox address, although the user id is the same.

    I agree that identity as defined by e-mail address is less reliable than it once was, but SMTP e-mail has been stretched much further than it’s underpinnings were really engineered for, and yet we still make do.  Hopefully making validation customary will close the loop on this particular corner case.

  • Kelly Maguire

    My gmail username is ‘kellbot’ and I recently got a reply from the South Dakota department of child support – Kelli Bot had apparently lost her login PIN and emailed them for a replacement.
    Thankfully, the department of child support doesn’t hand that information out via email.

  • http://profiles.google.com/bryanadams Bryan Adams

    Speaking as the owner of bryanadams@gmail.com (but not the Canadian pop star), I wholeheartedly support your proposal.  My guess is that there are a number of groupies who would feel the same way, if they only knew … 

  • Ben Cotton

    Shortly after my wife found out she was pregnant, I started getting mail from BabyCenter.com and Pampers. It turns out that Brandie Cotton was also pregnant, and apparnetly had no idea what her email address was.

  • Lance Jonn Romanoff

    Just now I received an email from the marketing department of match.com meant for someone with my last name who is starring in one of their commercials.

  • Mark Tabry

    One benefit of having a fairly unique last name is I’ve never had to deal with this.

  • Craig Pfeifer

    That’s what tumblr is for, start posting the best emails there.

  • http://profiles.google.com/bperkins Brian Perkins

    This happens to me all the time.

    The most interesting thing was a whole dossier on someone’s proposed medical malpractice lawsuit.

    The most pathetic ones were from several corporate  employment application websites (e.g. home depot and dollar general).

  • Anonymous

    I get about the same amount of mis-sent messages. I used to keep track of the different Erin Elizabeths, but it’s pointless. I’ve gotten several wedding venue confirmations, sorority email blasts, prayer group updates. When one of them got pregnant, I got signed up on the Parents Magazine website. I logged in, and there was her full name and address. Since I’m not a devious person, I just deleted the account instead of using her credit score to lease a car or something. I’ve even gotten messages from a few moms who don’t know their children’s email addresses. Depending on what kind of mood I’m in, I either delete the emails, or reply with a canned “wrong email” message. I was getting service update reminders from someone’s Toyota dealer ever few months, no matter how many times I tried to unsubscribe. I finally had to email the dealer directly to get taken off that list.

  • Gaurav Manchanda

    Someone’s exam grades for engineering school! No matter what I tell the folks at the school, they keep sending stuff to me.

  • Jeff

    Confirmation for a scheduled vow renewal at an Elvis impersonation church in Vegas.

  • Doug Harris

    Agree whole-heartedly about confirming email addresses.

    I use the Gmail lab “Canned Responses” to help manage this. I have a few. One is a simple “You meant this for the wrong D. Harris”. Another is a “Some other D. Harris signed up, please remove me.

    People are generally appreciative and responsive to these requests. Sometimes they’re humorously confused.

  • Anonymous

    I see the same thing all too frequently. Some of the information sent blindly via email is alarming. 

    BTW, Joan, James, Jennine, and Jennifer…if you happen to stumble onto this, you are not jrickman at gmail.com :)

  • Scott Wilson

    I get this all the time too.  The strangest are probably the US government travel itineraries, but I get Wells Fargo statement notices (no way to turn those off), term papers, endless customer satisfaction surveys…

    The ones that concern me the most are the ones for people who not only share my name but also work in the same industry.  I see headhunters and worried clients emailing me thinking I’m the ruby developer as opposed to the python developer.  The danger of identity theft or professional reputation theft seems significant here.

    I’ve often considered abandoning my commonly named gmail account in favour of a more obscure one but that would surely be as much work as the hours I spend every few months trying to unsubscribe from all these unintended lists. 

    This is really another spam filtering problem, but much trickier than run of the mill spam.

  • Rwierenga

    I regularly get emails from Ford and Redbox for the same reason.  The people who do it really don’t care that they are not getting the emails, or they would have called the company asking by now.  I tried to call to get it changed, but Ford refused to do anything without me providing my VIN.  I don’t even own a ford.  they still want my vin.  What good will that do?  They insist that is the only way they can search the system for my email address.  ???

  • http://pne.livejournal.com/ Philip Newton

    My alter ego seems to live in the UK and like dating (or porn) sites. They spell their email address without a dot in it, but Gmail doesn’t care about that difference.

  • Cesar Sanchez

    I also get these messages all the time, sent to colonels in Colombia or politicians in Bolivia, places I have never been to. In my case, the problem is to be the first one to get the decent name in gmail. I agree that a protocol with a double handshake would help fixing this problem (and alleviate spam too).

  • http://paulschreiber.com/blog/ Paul Schreiber

    I am:
    - Paul Schreiber, a multimillionaire on the upper east side of Manhattan with offshore assets (and the Merrill Lynch statements to back it up; gmail)
    - someone in Botswana (long yahoo thread)
    - Mark Bushinski, a student at St. Cloud State University (someone put my Yahoo address in their yearbook)
    - Kate Smith, who is on reunion.com (yahoo)
    - a Hyundai owner ins Westbrook, Maine (gmail)
    - Someone named Fi, who speaks French (gmail)

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  • Alex Karman

    I never received email for my doppleganger. But I recently discovered someone else’s doppleganger. I read a fantastic master’s thesis online and I tried to contact the author. He was of Indian descent, and I won’t repeat the name, but I guess that his name is like the Indian equivalent of “John Smith,” because: I matched the name, two University degrees, and one former employer (with reasonable dates) on LinkedIn. I sent my email to “a.b@hotmail.com” (his name). I received a reply that it was the wrong Mr. A B. The correct Mr. A B turned out to have the email address “a.b@gmail.com”! 

  • Rashd B

    I used to get emails from one Freemason Lodge in NY, there was someone with the same last name initial and first name as me.

    Funny coincidence that masons are also featured in author’s last name. 

  • Mike

    I work at a University in an IT department and have the email address lastname@university.edu.  There is a Sociology professor with the same last name who studies trends in divorce.  Not long ago I sitting on the couch next to my wife and I got an email for the professor with a header like “Need more information about your divorce papers.”  My wife saw it and was a bit alarmed.  

  • Dan Weeden

    I get this very frequently. There is a CEO of a large company that shares my first initial and last name. I have recieved multiple confidential documents from his assistant! I usually respond with “Sorry, this is the wrong email” type email and they are appreciative. Glad to hear others have this issue as well. :)

  • Not really John Smith

    My address is also @gmail.com (like jsmith@gmail.com for John Smith), and I get a LOT of both spam and legitimate emails for Jane, Jeff, Joe, and Jimmy Smith. The funny thing is, these emails are always addressed to j.smith@gmail.com — like mine, but with the dot after the first initial. It’s almost like there is some common [mis]understanding out there that once you get a gmail address for, e.g., jimmy.smith@gmail.com, you also automagically get j.smith@gmail.com without even asking for it.
    And you’d think that after Jane failed to get the online magazine subscription she signed up for (anybody want to read Working Mother?), she’d figure it out. Nope.