Office of Information Technology

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Message Undeliverable, But I Didn’t Send It

A bounce message, or several, arrives in your in-box, informing you that something you sent did not reach its destination. However, when you open it, you realize you didn’t send it—it is addressed to people you don’t know, and the content of the message appears to be spam.

This is alarming, and it’s not immediately obvious what the cause of the problem might be.

Has someone taken remote control of your computer, or pretended to be you? The answer is no. This exploit, called backscatter, relies on how e-mail delivery works. The bounce message mechanism is intended to notify senders when a recipient’s e-mail account is not available to receive an e-mail message—in cases where the e-mail address was misspelled or where the recipient’s mailbox is full, for example. When a message is sent onto the Internet, the return, or “from,” address is trusted to be accurate, but in the case of spam, it often is not.

Spammers will use a real address of some unsuspecting person, or one that they make up, but could be real, as the “from” address when they send out spam. If they have pirated your address, you might appear to be sending out spam. Spammers often use address lists that are incomplete or out of date, so some of the messages bounce—but they don’t bounce back to the spammer, they bounce to the return address. If that return address is yours, you will receive the messages.

Security experts are working on ways to reduce this annoyance. While they are working on this, we will continue to receive the bounces for messages that we actually sent, in addition to the backscatter. Meanwhile, don’t be alarmed by bounce messages of this type, just delete them when they come in.

EndNote available through the IT Help Desk

The Bender Library has licensed EndNote for all faculty, student, and staff use. This is a program that helps create citations and build bibliographies. It includes a plug-in to Microsoft Word, which has a Cite While You Write feature. Versions for both Windows and Macintosh are available on CD through the IT Help Desk. For more information about EndNote training, features and uses, see the library column.

Please contact the IT Help Desk at 885-2550, e-mail helpdesk@american.edu or on instant messenger at AskAmericanUHelp for assistance and to obtain a CD of siite-licensed software. Please include the mailing address to which you would like the CD sent.