Email “Delivery Failure” Messages

This article was originally written for ArrowQuick Solutions, a technology consultancy for small businesses.

Posted on April 14, 2008

This may have happened to you: You’re reviewing your new email, and you see a bunch of messages from strange names like “Mailer Daemon”:

"Mail Delivery System" <Mailer-Daemon@example.com>
Date: Mon, 10 Mar 2008 04:44:24 -0600
To: <you@youraddress.com>
Subject: failure notice

This message was created automatically by mail delivery software.
A message that you sent has not yet been delivered to one or more of its
recipients after more than 24 hours on the queue on mail.example.com.

The message identifier is:    1JYIJ1-0008Ew-JK
The date of the message is:    10 Mar 2008 10:02:56 +010
The subject of the message is: Buy Viagra

The address to which the message has not yet been delivered is:
some-unfamiliar-email-address@example.com.

You’ve received messages like this in the past when you mistyped an email address, but these emails don’t look familiar at all. What’s going on? Has your account been hijacked?

Well, no. At least, not in the traditional sense.

What’s Going On?

Although it’s possible that the account was hijacked, the more likely explanation is that a spammer is pretending to send email as you by using your email address as the “From” address. Then, when they inevitably send spam to a mailbox that no longer exists (or is full, or the email is deemed suspicious), the destination post office sends the return message (the “bounceback”) to you.

You can do the same thing with regular “snail” mail. Write your neighbor’s address in the return address field of an envelope and mail it to a nonexistent address. The post office will return the mail to your neighbor rather than you. (Note: Please don’t do this.)

You may be surprised to learn that there are no technological defenses to prevent somebody from sending emails using your email address! This is because the original creators of the Internet didn’t anticipate this kind of abuse. Now the worldwide tech community is playing a sort of catch-up game of escalating tactics with the spammers.

What To Do

Unfortunately, there’s nothing to stop someone from doing this. If the returned email is obviously not yours, then it’s best just to ignore and delete it. Usually these messages come in surges but go away fairly quickly, after the spammer moves on and uses a different email address for his next batch.

Spam filters might not catch these bounceback messages, because the messages are valid mail system messages, even if they are referring to spam.

The best way to prevent spammers from using your address in the “From” field is the same as the best way to prevent spammers from using it in the “To” field — don’t publish your email address out on the web where spam robots can harvest it and add it to their collection.

Update: One thing you can do is set up a rule in your email software to filter out these emails. Most return messages are sent from postmaster@ or mail-daemon@ addresses. Note that this will also filter out legitimate emails.

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18 Responses to Email “Delivery Failure” Messages

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  2. Thanks for the “plain English” post. I am getting a ton of these irritating messages and it reminds me that I must take my email off my site. It is conspicuously listed there.

  3. Rec. message: Delivery has failed to this recipient. The recipient’s email was not found in the recipient’s email system. I used to send emails to this person (toddamend@remax.com). Now I can’t. I sometimes get this message: mailerdaemon – sorry, we were unable to deliver your message. I never had these problems before, and on top of everything else, Staples just went over my hp laptop because of all the problems I was having; however, now they say they couldn’t find “any” problems.

  4. @deb It is a good idea to not publish your personal email address on your site. It used to be expected, but with the spam issues that exist it is better to post a general email address for people to send to rather then your personal email. Contact forms can offer a better solution as well. At minimum use CAPTCHA or some sort of email obfuscation if you are going to publish your emails on a website.

  5. THIS IS THE ERROR MESSAGE i GET WITH ONLY ONE FRIEND.. hE AND i HAVE BEEN TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHY i HAVE A PROBLEM SENDING HIM EMAIL ON MY MSN ACCOUNT/ MY GMAIL WORKS. HE CAN SEND IT TO ME, BUT WHEN i SEND IT TO HIM IT COMES BACK, DELIVERY FAILURE, HE’S THE ONLY PROBLEM?? HELP

  6. Yashpal Singh Kaintura |

    I am also receving same massage . I have delete to it form sent iteam but it,s coming again &again

    Yashpal

  7. Every time , when i try to send email to some body , postmaster report to me failure email message. What it the problem here in MSN hotmail ? does anybody can give me right answere ?

    Thanks

  8. Ondina Garcia |

    For over a month I have been receiving failure notices for emails I’ve sent, mainly to AOL recipients but it also includes other addresses in the US and also in Europe and S America.
    How or where can I find out what is happening. I do receive the emails sent by those people.

  9. Eric Heikes |

    Hi everyone,

    This article is about what to do if you receive “delivery failure” messages from recipients that you didn’t send email to and that you don’t recognize.

    If you are getting “delivery failure” messages for emails that you sent, then there’s a problem on the recipient’s side. Let the recipient or their email provider know that you’re getting emails returned. Also, always check that the email address you typed is actually correct!

  10. Thanks for the plain explanations!
    Their is (1) thing you can do! This spamming is loading up your computer with deleted E-MAIL. Unless you delete, deleted mail on exit.
    To do this, Go to TOOLS! Then options at bottom, Then all the way to the right (ADVANCED), then select (MAINTENANCE).
    Check the top box, (EMPTY MESSAGES FROM DELETED ITEMS FOLDER ON EXIT).
    You still have to delete the spam, but DELETED ITEMS won’t be clogging up your system nearly as much!

  11. Patrick Piscopo |

    Lately I received a lot of failure notice of email that has been sent from but I did not send them, so ofcourse I was worried that I my email got hijacked. I googled the problem and this came up, which explains everything. But my question is how they can use my email address to send emails?

    I am not a computer savy but on my email I cannot find where to put my email address, what I mean is “from”.

  12. not only do i get delivery has failed notices from supposed email that i sent(which i haven’t), but when i do send an email to someone, sometimes it sends out random messages to that person that doesn’t have anything to do with the original email.

  13. Oh my heck, this has been going on for 3 1/2 years!!!

    I changed my email password and that did not work. Hopefully this problem resolves itself soon. I am making up a trash email account for web sign ups.

    Joe

  14. Changing my password may have worked, I have not gotten a mystery email in a half hour. That could be because the spammers got tired but hopefully not.

    Joe

  15. Why do I get the failure to deliver from a person that I know. I get the original message but the rest of them is-failure to deliver. what can I do to correct this problem?