NPR logo Your Email Double: A Classic Digital Dilemma

Your Email Double: A Classic Digital Dilemma

William Shakespeare in period clothing sitting in school desk with laptop computer shrugging at viewer. i
Ron Chapple Stock/istockphoto.com
William Shakespeare in period clothing sitting in school desk with laptop computer shrugging at viewer.
Ron Chapple Stock/istockphoto.com

Now that the term Digital World has become redundant, we are able to make mistakes and encounter entanglements that no human — even Shakespeare —could ever have imagined.

Email doubles, for instance. Nearly everyone — even those of us with unusual names — has run into the dilemma. An email double who shares our name.

Unlike the problems caused by typosquatters and brandjackers — who often operate with sinister intentions — problems resulting from email doubles or digital doppelgangers or Twitter Twins are usually unintentional. But they can be annoying nonetheless.

Kohl Case

Jeff Kohl, for instance, was put in charge of a reunion for a high school he never attended.

"Occasionally," explains Jeff, who works in marketing for a pharmaceutical company, "I've received emails for other J. Kohls of the world. Until recently, the most notable was a woman with a similar name from Indiana who signed up for cable service using my email. I even got copies of her bills. That was nothing compared to what was to come."

The first weird email in the thread came to Jeff in mid-July from a man named Jim, thanking Jeff — actually thanking someone else with the same last name — for organizing the Oregon high school's Class of 1962 reunion. Jim said he was "pleased to RSVP 'yes' for the gathering."

That was all well and good. The snags, of course, were: 1) Jeff went to high school in New Jersey, not Oregon; 2) he graduated in 2000, not 1962; 3) he didn't know Jim; 4) and he certainly wasn't in charge of any reunion.

Jeff replied to Jim, explaining the case of mistaken email identity. Jeff thought that would do the trick. But no. "Then I got more RSVPs," Jeff says. "Judy was excited to attend. Lynn had to miss it for a wedding. Evelyn was going to be on vacation. Duane and Ron both hoped to be able to make it next year. You get the idea."

Apparently one of the reunion organizers had posted the wrong return email address.

"If I did nothing," Jeff says, "I would be ruining a 52nd high school reunion."

And that, he says, "seemed callous."

He adds, "I realized I had a situation on my hands."

Email Tales

Other people have realized they were in strange or strained situations, stemming from e-blunders. In 2013, the Wall Street Journal told the tale of a man named Doug Erickson who was unknowingly sending love notes to a woman with the same name as his wife. And of Seth Ginsberg of Global Healthy Living Foundation — a nonprofit in New York that advocates for patients — who has received e-correspondence for other Seth Ginsbergs, including a heartthrob actor and the lawyer for John Gotti Jr.

The Wall Street Journal advised recipients of errant emails to reply and point out the mistakes. And it suggested that people use unidentifiable user names when dealing with retailers and engaging in social media.

Folks with common names can run into difficulty. According to White Pages, more than 50,000 people in the United States are named James Smith. And a couple of thousand are named Amy Hall.

Email consultant Amy Hall acknowledges the confusion on her website. She advises people who want to use her services: "Make sure your Amy Hall is a verified Genuine Amy Hall."

Hackers Dream

The verified genuine Jeff Kohl defused his dilemma this way. He began sending replies to all of the RSVP messages explaining the error. Eventually one of the invitees agreed to sort out the whole mess.

But it made Jeff rethink the nature of digital communications. "It's remarkably insecure," he says. "These reunion RSVPers shared so much personal information with me. Names, ages, occupations, hometowns, vacation plans etc. for themselves, children, grandchildren, friends. All shared with the assumption that the message was going to a friendly inbox and not a random stranger."

Jeff points out that luckily for the emailers, "I'm not involved in any unscrupulous Internet activities. I guarantee you I could have hacked many of them had I wanted to."

The information the respondents provided to Jeff is the kind that "hackers dream of: valid emails along with plentiful personal information to guess passwords and security questions," he says.

"The real head-scratcher," Jeff adds, "is how you can blame any of them." And how we can all keep from making similar mistakes in the future.

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The Protojournalist: Experimental storytelling for the LURVers — Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers — of NPR. @NPRtpj

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