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I just received an email from an HR recruiter requesting a phone interview followup for a job application. However I did not apply for the job. The company is reputable and the recruiter has a valid Linked-In profile so I am inclined to believe this email.

However, I happen to know there is another person who has the email address of firstMlast@gmail.com (mine is firstlast@gmail.com)*.

Honestly, I would feel a bit uncomfortable taking much action. Generally I just ignore/delete all mistaken communication directed to this person (well except the jury duty related one). It seems creepy to know what I know already let alone take actions on it.

But it seems unfair to just delete/ignore this email knowing why I mistakenly got it and knowing someone will not get an interview as a result.

Should I just forward this email to the right person ? Reply to or call the recruiter? Just not respond? What's the appropriate etiquette here?


*I am very confident there is a person with the same name as me in the location in question, whose email address is first(MI)last@gmail.com (mine is firstlast@gmail.com). I found this out when I was looking for firstlast.com. Someone with this email had registered the domain and his address was in that city/state. Additionally I have received many emails directed to him in the past, such as jury duty notifications, jewelry purchase confirmations (congrats dude!), misc hobby related emails, flight confirmations, etc. It's actually really creepy how much I know about this person from people typing email addresses incorrectly... it also shows how many manual data entry jobs there are.


Edit: I got an auto reply rejection after responding to the initial email saying that they had the wrong email. Poor guy...

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    Ugh. I've got a similar problem. There's this guy with a very similar email address to me who repeatedly signs up for things with the wrong address, and I keep getting messages intended for him. I generally just reply with a "you've got the wrong person" message and let the sender work it out. – Mason Wheeler Sep 21 '15 at 20:46
  • I had a similar thing, but I didn't ever get to know the intended address. At first, I answered to the senders that they should ask for the correct mail address. As I got no replies, but more and more mail from different senders, I started to just delete everything after I had answered 50 or so over the period of a month. After two or three more months, it stopped. My gut feeling says he printed the wrong address on his business cards, and corrected/discarded them only after the first important message did not receive him at all anymore. – Alexander Sep 22 '15 at 13:33
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    Obligatory xkcd on this exact phenomenon: xkcd.com/1279 – thanby Sep 22 '15 at 17:13
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    @Alexander: My gut feeling says he printed the wrong address on his business cards... Heh. One day I started getting phone calls at work for some realtor and I had no idea who he was. I kept telling people they had the wrong number, until at one point someone mentioned where the realtor was located and I realized it was in the office building right next to mine. So I went over to talk to the guy. Turns out he printed up a ton of business cards and got one digit wrong on the phone number... – Mason Wheeler Sep 22 '15 at 17:58
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    @KRyan: Could be worse. You could have been one digit off from a local taxi company. One of my high school teachers had that, and he was always getting awakened at 2 AM by drunks needing a ride home from bars. :( – Mason Wheeler Sep 22 '15 at 19:59
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Reply to the recruiter and explain briefly what happened, that you appreciate the interview offer but think it was probably meant to go to firstMlast@gmail.com as you did not apply.

Then the interviewer can update his/her records and send any offer letter or follow up to the right place.


If you got a first class letter in the mail that wasn't meant for anyone at your address, proper protocol is to write "Return to Sender" on the outside and put it back in the mail. This is the e-mail equivalent. It's an understandable mistake that happens more often than we'd wish.

Given the address similarity, it's reasonable for the recruiter to think this isn't the first time this has happened (as you described) so it's not surprising that you would have a reasonable guess as to the intended e-mail address. If you're wrong about the intended recipient, the recruiter has the full ability to correct that and handle things appropriately from here, once the recruiter is aware the interview request didn't reach its intended recipient. Forwarding directly to firstMlast@gmail.com takes that power away from the recruiter, and sets you up to receive more sensitive job-related email you shouldn't get.

Also, if you're wrong about the intended recipient, forwarding would put firstMlast in an even more awkward position and still not help the applicant who still doesn't know about the interview request (maybe through no fault of their own), nor the recruiter. While you may be confident in this particular case, good protocol supports a more general case where the probability of being wrong might be a little higher. (Even a 95% confidence level leads to an expected error every 20 times this protocol is run, on average. Given visibility here, this protocol is expected to run >20x so you want it to handle that error gracefully.)

Consider also what you would do if you got e-mail from an attorney, containing sensitive information intended for someone who is not you: you might send it back to the attorney, but you would not forward it on to a third party. This is also in the class of messages that a sender is likely to re-send, expending additional lookup effort if needed, to get it to the right person.

The sender has more information about who exactly was supposed to get this message than you do, and observing that even this isn't enough information to get it to the right person should decrease your confidence that your less information, without the sender's input, is somehow going to be better than their more information at getting it to the right person.

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    @enderland creepy would be forwarding it on. Telling someone they misdirected their communication seems reasonalbe. I get all kinds of misdirected stuff because I have an early gmail address and it's a simple one. Usually it's site registration stuff and a car dealer in GA keeps sending me reminders to have a car I don't have service at a dealer I have never been within a 100 miles of. I also got on their racist uber conservative forwarding threads. I trolled them back on that one though. (that ones a bit on the creepy side) – Bill Leeper Sep 21 '15 at 14:44
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    @enderland This comes up a lot for me due to my address, I'm pretty sure a lot of elderly people just make up an email address when someone asks. I pretty much have a form "I believe this was sent to me in error, I think this is meant for a different [my name]" mail. It's embarrassing when they try again and still email me, for which I have another form email along the lines of "nope, it's still the wrong [my name], you might want to check back with yours to make sure he gave you the right email" I'm not seeing the creepy though. What element gives you the creeps about it? – Murphy Sep 21 '15 at 16:54
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    @DoubleDouble start using First.M.Last@gmail; gmail ignores the dots so it will still come to you, and it's much more explicit that you meant to put that letter in there. – Bones Sep 21 '15 at 18:25
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    @BillLeeper - "I also got on their racist uber..." - there's an Uber for racists in Georgia? – Hannover Fist Sep 21 '15 at 21:31
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    @James Yes, I find it's often a good idea to include a note like that, and if a little more is known (e.g. "deceased" or "no longer at this address") that can be helpful to the sender. Also, blacking/whiting out the barcode on the bottom is important to stop it from automatically coming back. – WBT Sep 22 '15 at 16:43
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Be careful - just because you know of a similar email like firstMlast@gmail.com doesn't mean there are not other close email addresses (eg firstlastX@gmail.com) that it might have been meant for. You do not have the information to make that call, and forwarding it on to someone else may compound the problem. The only person you know is authorized to see the contents of that email is the sender.

If you are confident the email is legitimate then the best course is to reply directly because then the recruiter can immediately make the connection to the email they sent and who they thought they were sending it to. However, still be careful in providing any information about yourself (watch for a phone number in your standard signature for example) and just keep the text very simple. "I received this, it is clearly not intended for me, please check the address you sent it to". If you suggest what the email address should be, then the recruiter may simply forward to that without properly checking if that is the correct person.

If you are suspicious about the email for any reason you can try and contact the recruiter by phone (getting the number from a different source, of course).

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If you are 100% certain that you know the correct address of the intended recipient, the suggest approach would be to forward the message to him or her and put the original sender in CC with a quick "I think this was meant for you." If you don't know the intended recipient's correct address, standard operating procedure is to reply to the sender with a standard boilerplate text explaining the situation. If this comes up regularly make sure you save your reply for future reference, that way these incorrect emails will have a minimal impact on your time. If the message is sensitive, highly personal or it would otherwise be embarrassing for it to end up in a stranger's inbox, the kinder thing would be to reply instead of forward. You of course wouldn't bother doing any of this for non-personal communication like mass mailing or marketing surveys.

In a workplace situation, you'd normally know the intended recipient and standard practice there is to matter-of-factly forward to the right person and CC the original sender. Ignoring the message is not advisable since the people involved will eventually figure out that the message came to you and your lack of action will come across as very strange.

In your case, since you're dealing with constant occurrences here, it makes sense to send an email to the intended person's address if you want to check with him if there's anything that can be done to reduce the volume of incorrect mail, or if you've decided that you don't have the time to constantly play courier and will be deleting such emails without reading them in future. Either option can be valid, mostly depending on how apologetic and thankful this person has been in the past.


Whether you have an ethical or moral obligation to act on these mails depends on the importance of the messages and the consequences of non-delivery for both sender and intended recipient. The LifeHacker article How to Handle Emails You Receive That Are Intended for Someone Else summarises Jenna Wortham as follows:

When The New York Times asked an ethicist what the best course of action was here, his response was to try and gauge whether the message was urgent and the person's life, career, or happiness would be in jeopardy if they didn't get the message. If it would, send it along. If it's an advertising message, spam, or something not worth your time or energy, he explains you're not ethically obligated to do anything— forward it if you like, delete it if you know it's nothing either of you needs to see.

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    This ethicist is obviously totally oblivious to information security concerns. Unexpected email should be treated with extreme prejudice - ideally not even opened. – Andrew Medico Sep 21 '15 at 17:58
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    I downvoted this one because it's the sender's responsibility to talk to the intended recipient, not that of the accidental recipient. I don't see that the OP has any business getting involved here! To me the action of simply replying to the email saying "you have the wrong person; did you mean X?" is a pretty obvious and normal human response. – Lightness Races with Monica Sep 21 '15 at 22:18
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    I think the key here is the 100% certain part. I don't think it's possible to be that certain with general email addresses, but if you get an email at johnd@mycompany.com, and you have a coworker who has jond@mycompany.com whom this email clearly relates to, that'd be a good time to apply this logic. – Bobson Sep 21 '15 at 22:32
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    @AndrewMedico I've seen the advice to "not open" unexpected email before but as far as I know most office email clients will automatically display an email anyway and I can't find any reliable references supporting the advice. As I mentioned in the above comment, this advice mainly applies to office emails and the decision to keep or discard emails as spam should be made before deciding whether or not to forward. – Lilienthal Sep 22 '15 at 8:56
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    Yes, I read all of the answer. I stand by my opinion: the accidental recipient should never get involved, no matter how sure or certain they think they are. It is none of their business, and they should simply reply to point out the error and move on! – Lightness Races with Monica Sep 22 '15 at 10:46
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I wouldn't reply via email IF this recruiter has a valid reason to have had your email address i.e. if you'd used their company previously. I don't want to sound like the tin hat brigade but just in case it is some sort of phishing attempt using the name of two reputable companies.

I think if you rang them up and explained the situation it can be solved quite easily. I certainly wouldn't contact the intended recipient even if you're 100% certain who it is.

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You can't be too careful with unsolicited email. If you don't personally know any of the parties involved, it's perfectly fine to delete the message and do nothing else. You have no obligation here.

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I'm torn between Andrew's "not my problem" approach, and those who advocate doing something.

Of course, it's email - it's not like you only have one original. If I decided to "do something", I believe I would send an email to both parties.

One email to the suspected "correct" person saying, "Hey, I keep getting your emails, and you should change the address you give out because you just missed a job interview with [name of recruiter], and this is last notification." (or something)

Another email to the recruiter: "I think you have my email address on one of your clients, please fix this, as I am throwing away emails from you."

No need to give out any sensitive data or forward anything, and he guy is warned he'll lose more emails if he doesn't fix it.

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In addition to doing what was already suggested, may I suggest the following: Set up an automatic reply on your email account with some basic information that may help differentiate you from like-named people. It could, for example, say something like this:

Dear sender,

This e-mail address has, in the past, received a lot of e-mails intended for the wrong person. As such, please be aware that John Doe of Los Angeles, CA is the recipient of this e-mail.

Sincerely, John

Edit: I don't have enough reps for commenting.

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