I use Yahoo! for my e-mail and I often get inappropriate e-mails and I’m afraid some of them may carry viruses. I send them to Yahoo’s abuse center, but they never do anything about it. How can I trace the e-mail back to the original sender so I can try to stop them?

That is such a common question and I get several e-mails about this particular problem all the time. Depending on how bad the e-mails are that you’re receiving, they can be used as evidence for anyone who is misusing the Internet to either send out junk mail or to mess around with someone’s head. I hope none of you are having to deal with that sort of problem, but if you’re receiving e-mails that you have not requested and they’re of an inappropriate manner, it’s a good idea to know what you can do to try and stop them.

First, let’s go over how e-mail actually works. When you send out an e-mail, it travels through a set of wires until it reaches a type of post office, which is known as the Mail Transfer Agent. (You can read more about that above in today’s Quick Tip). The e-mail you send obviously includes your e-mail address and the receiver’s address. Once the Mail Transfer Agent gets the e-mail, it sorts it out, puts a type of header at the top and then sends it off to the correct recipient. When they get the e-mail, they know who sent it because of the header.

So, when you receive an unfamiliar e-mail, you know right away that you don’t want it because you don’t recognize the header. The header also usually contains the sender’s IP number, which makes it a little easier to track these types of e-mails. (An IP number looks something like this:

In other words, you can trace a sender of an e-mail by gathering up a few sources of information. The first thing you want to look at is the header, because they include the path the e-mail traveled along and the addresses you need to know. You can also track down the sender’s ISP because of the IP number that is also contained in the header.

Here is some information on how you can locate the header in different e-mail programs.

Outlook Express – Open it up and select an e-mail that you received (one you don’t want). Right click and select Properties. Click on the Details tab and then the Message Source button. You will then see a bunch of text that may look a little foreign to you. The main things you need to look for are the Return-Path address and the Originating-IP. You can look over everything else that is included there as well, all of which can help you trace the sender.

Yahoo! – Open your Yahoo! account and click on the Options link at the top right hand corner of the page. Click on the General Preferences link and go down to the Messages section. The very first thing there is Headers. By default, it is set to “Show brief headers on incoming messages,” but if you want to see everything in the header, switch it to “Show all headers on incoming messages.” With this, you will see the IP number, the return path, etc. When you’re done, click Save.

Hotmail – Log in to your Hotmail account and click on the Options link at the top of the page. Next, click on the Mail link and then the Mail Display Settings link. Look for the heading of Message Headers and you will see that by default, it is set to a Basic display of the information. You can either change it to Full or Advanced. The advanced option will provide you with the most information and it will probably have exactly what you’re looking for. When done, click OK.

Thunderbird – Open it up and go to the View menu and choose Headers. You will then see your choices as All or Normal. By default, it is set to Normal, but change it to All to see the information you’ll need to trace a sender.

Once you have what you need, you can try using a big address book (which is really a Web site) to look for certain IP addresses and hopefully find more information about the sender. For North and South America, try this address book. For Europe, search here and for Australia, try this site. All of these sites have what is called a “Whois” search and you can begin by typing in the IP address that you found to see if it comes up with anything.

Please keep in mind that these sites do charge for some of their services. It just depends on how serious you are about tracking down senders of certain e-mails. You may not want to go into this much depth if the e-mails don’t bother you in a very serious manner. You can use the information you find at your discretion.

~ Erin