I had a great question from a reader about how to determine the origin of an email.
“Do you know of any way to determine if emails I receive are coming from a particular computer? Each computer must have some unique way to identify it well enough to distinguish it from others. If I get a suspicious email I’d like to be able to know if it came from one of my known contacts or not. It wouldn’t need to identify who is faking its source, but to know enough not to open or respond to it.”
It’s wise to be cautious. And your first line of defense is to always keep your eyes open and don’t be afraid to contact your friends and ask if they sent a particular email.
Let’s look at how you can track a message back to its IP address. Now, this isn’t going to pinpoint someone like a GPS. But if your friend Bob is in Miami, this will let you know if the email actually came from the Miami area. Since the reader who asked the question has a Gmail account, I’ll show you how to do it for Gmail first.
Go to your Gmail inbox and open the email. Click on the arrow next to the reply arrow and choose Show Original from the drop-down menu.
A window will open displaying a lot of information.
This information will contain all of the ISP addresses the message has passed through. You’ll want to scroll down to the very last “received” IP addresses just above the From & Subject.
With the IP address information in hand, you can now look it up online. whatismyipaddress.com is a good site to use, but I will caution you that they have a lot of ads on the page, so be careful to stay in the middle and just paste or type in the address you want to look up.
You’ll get information about the likely source of the email including the ISP, the type of organization, and you’ll be able to check to see if it’s been flagged as a problematic site. If the IP is private, you won’t be able to see this information. This doesn’t necessarily mean the email is shady, it just means the user is guarding their privacy.
You may even get a map with an approximate location of the sender.
Does this tell you if something is legit? It can be a way to find out if a message that says it’s from your bank’s headquarters or from your friend is actually originating where you’d expect it to. But there will probably be more clues in the content of a message. But it’s an interesting trick to know.
Interestingly enough, while I was writing this article, I received an email from someone claiming to be the American retailer, Target. It said that my recent purchases entitled me to a gift card.
So, I tried our little trick to find the IP address.
Guess what? This email didn’t come from Target. It didn’t even come from the U.S.
Who knows what I could have picked up on my PC if I’d clicked that print button to get my alleged voucher.