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     Why do I get email that’s not addressed to me?

I'm guessing that you've just had a piece of particularly annoying, possibly even offensive, spam. 'Spam' is defined as "Unsolicited commercial email" - i.e. you didn't ask for it and it's trying to sell you something. You're looking at it, trying to work out how they got your name and why it was sent to you. You've looked at the headers to see where it came from, and you've noticed something pretty weird: It doesn't even have your name on it!

The answer is: emails have envelopes, just like real letters. You never see the envelope because your mail program (Outlook, Eudora or whatever) puts it on for you automatically when you send, and takes it off for you automatically before putting things in your Inbox. A real-world junk-mail might have your name on the envelope, but when you open it, it's just a photocopied sheet that says "Dear Winner!". Email works the same way.

When you write an email, you write a bunch of text in a big window:

Hi Marcie,

Are you feeling better? I will visit you at the weekend. Is there anything I can get you?

Regards,

Fred.

You also type in a recipient and a subject, which get added onto the top of your message:

To:  marcie@overthere.com
Subject: Oopsy

Hi Marcie,

Are you feeling better? I will visit you at the weekend. Is there anything I can get you?

Regards,
Fred.

Your mail program adds some other lines, including "From", "Date" and "X-Mailer" (which simply says what mail program you're using):

Date: 08 Jan 2002 13:00:40 +0000
From:
fred@somewhere.com
To: marcie@overthere.com
Subject: Oopsy
X-Mailer: Mozilla 4.7 [en-gb] (Win98; U)

Hi Marcie,

Are you feeling better? I will visit you at the weekend. Is there anything I can get you?

Regards,
Fred.

There will be others, but they're the most common. Then you hit the 'Send' button, and your mail program has a little conversation with your ISP's mail server:

Your computer Knock knock!
The mail server Hi! I'm
mail.greatbigisp.com. I can speak ESMTP.
Your Computer (automatically speaks ESMTP) Hi! I'm fredscomputer.
The mail server Hello fredscomputer, pleased to meet you
Your computer I've got some mail from
fred@somewhere.com
The mail server Uh-huh.
Your computer It's to
marcie@overthere.com
The mail server Uh-huh.
Your computer I'm about to send the message
The mail server Go for it. Tell me when you're done.

      Your computer Date: 08 Jan 2002 13:00:40 +0000
      From:
      fred@somewhere.com
      To: marcie@overthere.com
      Subject: Oopsy
      X-Mailer: Mozilla 4.7 [en-gb] (Win98; U)

      Hi Marcie,

      Are you feeling better? I will visit you at the weekend. Is there anything I can get you?

      Regards,
      Fred.

      DONE!!!

The mail server That's fine; I'll send it along for you.
Your computer Bye-bye

The mail server Bye-bye

See how the actual addresses of the sender and the recipient are actually sent before the message? That's where the email 'envelope' starts. It has to be this way so that (for example) you can send an email to someone and send your lawyers a copy, without the original recipient knowing. Proper (non-spam) mailing lists work the same way. Each message to the list might have 2,000 recipients, but you don't want to tell each one who all the others are.

Spammers just get their software say slightly different things in the conversation:

Your computer I've got some mail from mr_spammer@ispamall.net
The mail server Uh-huh.
Your computer It's to victim1, victim2, victim3, ... victim4897
The mail server Uh-huh.
Your computer I'm about to send the message
The mail server Go for it. Tell me when you're done.

      Your computer Date: 08 Jan 2002 13:00:40 +0000
      From:
      mr_spammer@ispamall.net
      To: Lucky WINNERS!!!
      Subject: YOU ARE A WINNER!!!

      You're already a winner! Just click here...
      ...spammy rubbish ...

      DONE!!!

So the next time you get email that's 'not addressed to you' you'll know that it was - but it was on the envelope.

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