How To Trace Your Emails Back To The Source

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Most people won’t notice this, but emails actually arrive in your inbox with a “˜receipt’, which contains a lot of information about the sender. In order to find the sender’s identity, we only need to retrieve an IP address, but inside the email header we can also find the originating domain, reply-to address and sometimes even the email client, for example Thunderbird.

Why would you want to find out the identity of the sender? Well, you may have heard of shady email scams or emails supposedly from Paypal inviting you to re-enter your personal information. Now, you can determine if an email is truly from the authentic source.

Accessing the email header is different for every email provider or email application, and sometimes, it is even hidden. In most of the cases however, the option to reveal the full header will be somewhere in the area where the subject and sender name are provided.

For example, the Yahoo! Mail header is in the upper right corner of the sender box, which is pointed out in the screenshot above. When you click Show Original, a text file will open in a new tab. This file contains all the necessary headers at the start. They are highlighted in screenshots.

And this is how the full email header appears in Yahoo! Mail:

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For Gmail, the header is hidden under “˜Show Original’ ““ which will show you the complete email in plain text, including the header.

The example below is the header from an email I received in GMail.

In order to find out the IP address of the original sender, we need to look closely at the first half of the header. Somewhere in there, you’ll find a domain name and an IP address. Particularly, take a closer look at the term “˜Received: from':

The first “˜Received: from’ line gives us the IP address of the server which forwarded the email to my Gmail address.

Received: from smtp110.biz.mail.mud.yahoo.com(smtp110.biz.mail.mud.yahoo.com [68.142.201.179])

If we continue our search, the second “˜Received: from’ line gives us the originating IP address.

Received: from unknown (HELO ?192.168.0.100?) (chaz@68.108.204.242 with plain)

This means that Chaz, located at 68.108.204.242 sent me an email.

The next line will only appear if the email was sent using an email application residing on the sender’s computer, like Thunderbird or Apple Mail. In our case:

X-Mailer: Apple Mail (2.753.1)

If the user sent the email using the web interface, the string would have looked like this:

Received: from [158.143.189.83] by web56706.mail.re3.yahoo.com via HTTP

We have the originating IP address 68.108.204.242 . To find out who’s behind that IP address we need to do a reverse DNS lookup using a web service like DomainTools, the command line or from “˜Network Tools’ in Ubuntu.

In our case, we know that someone called Chaz from Atlanta, using Cox Communications ““ with an IP address 68.108.204.242, depending on the subnet mask, sent that email.

Alternatively, you could use a tool called Email Trace, that does the whole operation for you after inputing the full email header into the text box. It might not always work, so knowing how to do it the old fashion way might come in handy.

This proves useful if you’re trying to report a spammer to your ISP, find out where a certain person is located at the moment, or help you spot phishing emails. For example, PayPal couldn’t have sent an email from an IP address in China.

If you know other good uses for this procedure, please share it with us in the comments.

Image credit: nekto_nektov

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Comments (19)
  • Mavcal

    I have been getting personalized porno and taunting emails from I suspect a neighbor who has an ax to grind. I would like to verify that he is sending them. Does anyone know of a legitimate business that can trace these emails to the source? Thanks

    • heartlessgamer

      Mavcal, the best anyone could do for you outside of a court order, would be to follow the steps mentioned in the article.

      If you can get the header of one of the emails, and I have time, I can dissect it and tell you where its coming from.

      What most likely has happened is the person has signed your email address up for spam mail lists or porn mailing lists. In which case, all we’ll ever see is the port mailing lists’ originating mail server.

      As a side note, 95%+ of email on the Internet is spam, so to get porn or other junk mail is not that uncommon. However, post a header and we can dissect it.

    • Greg

      Hey can you guys help me out? This is not a phoney post. I am a real person being screwed over by a a cheating wife. My story is not anything new, but nonetheless if someone could assist that would be great.

      My wife has been planning on leaving me for the past 8-9 months. But she wanted to find something on me…well, if you can’t dig up dirt…”invent dirt”. Mavcal, I am in a similar situation. Before she filed for divorce, she opened a “gay porn site” using a credit card the day right before it was to expire. But, then she cancelled the “porn site account” 10 days later. Everyone says file a police report, but I called the billing co….blah..blah. That would make it seem like I was engaging in “fraud”…and that’s what she wants me to do…duh…she was an authorized user.

      She didn’t sign up from any of my accounts because she was “traveling” the day the account was registered and doesn’t know my passwords.

      The billing company was able to give me an IP 74.38.167.17
      she uses yahoo as her main email…and I tried tracing bt only came up with an Earthlink provider. Which she uses.

      If anyone can help me nail this low budget ******, I will be happy to provide details. Even if the only thing that pops up is 5miles of where she was…is good enough.

  • George Zepol

    You need a lot to learn about this ident. matter. Mail m.

  • PhaoLoo

    Really informative post, I can trace spammers :)

  • Edo

    Duh, nothing can trace an IP address to a street, at least not without access to the ISPs database. To find out if something is spam often just the country is good enough.

  • Anthem

    there is a great toolbar for firefox that gives you all the info to trace any email… take a look at eMail Analyzer

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For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.