Friday, April 20, 2007

How to Answer: Who sent me that email?

With roughly 2 billion Internet users at the start of 2007, it can be difficult to determine who is actually sending an email, and from what country. Spam operators often use sophisticated software, server misrepresentation and other techniques to conceal their identity. Companies that spam often hire a third party company to do their mass mailing, and receive all the complaints. Individuals or small groups of spammers use any means available to send bulk email to as many recipients as possible (millions) and not be identified. A recent trend of spammers is to use "zombie" PCs, which are virus-infected PCs, where an average Internet user unknowlingly sends spam from his own system. The latest estimates put email spam at over 90 billion emails being sent daily. This amounts to over 80% of all emails in the world on any given day. Others send less volume but single out their victims by emailing lottery emails, Nigeria 419 scams and prize offers. Many unsuspecting Internet users initiate contact with criminals via chat rooms and dating websites. Once the relationship scam starts, it can be difficult to know that the individual claiming to live in Paris is truly writing from Ghana. Below we offer some options and general advice.

1. If it's spam, don't reply.

If the email is plain spam, never reply to the sender. Sending an email asking to be taken off their list, or telling the spammer exactly what you think, will only verify your email account as active. The spammer will then send more spam, and may sell your address to other spammers resulting in an overload of spam.

2. Who sent that email, and from where?

Tracing the IP address and routing will usually provide some basic information on the sender, depending on what, if any, efforts are employed to conceal the sender's identity. Many sites offer this service. Perhaps one of the best is Visualware's Email Tracker Pro. The software offers a free 15 day trial to test the program. After the trial period the user has the option to buy a license $29.95. We found this program to be reliable and current, i.e. Visualware regularly updates global server information which helps tracking. To trace an email received, you will need the IP address of the email message, and to do that you will need to examine the Internet header of the mail message. For more information on how to view the header of an email message recieved, ReadNotify offers good visual instructions.

3. Knowing the Limitations

Tracing the IP address from an email received, even if using a reliable software such as Email Tracker Pro, and when the sender makes no attempt to conceal his identity, may not provide all the information you're looking for. Remember, IP addresses are from servers and servers can be and usually are physically apart from the Internet user. For example, an author of an email in Tennessee sending email via AOL, may be labeled as Virginia given the location of AOL's servers. In fact, the geographical distance can be much greater than that, at times, even in a different country. Some users in England, for example, use IP address from servers in France, therefore an IP trace could indicate the user is in a different country. A woman sending emails from rural Russia, 400 miles from Moscow, may still show up as being located in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Knowing the limitations enables the user to use the IP and email tracing tools available as tools, not as conclusive location data.

4. Professional Services Available

Depending on the importance of confirming a sender's location, some professional options are available. Some international background check companies employ some of the same software available to law enforcement and federal agencies determined to track the sender of an email message. Wymoo International is one firm that specializes in confirming physical location of individuals and businesses around the world. The background check group usually conducts traces on email samples provided by clients, but also can verify results with physical visits and public records.

Technology is changing rapidly. As technology makes it easier to trace the senders of email messages, so too does the technology to conceal a sender's identity. We'll return to this topic soon with the changing methods to see who is behind the email.

Best of luck,

A. Hathaway
Different Themes
Posted by the Investigators

This copyrighted article was written and published by the editor and site author, A. Hathaway, or other guest private investigator, expert or contributor as noted.