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Mid-Sure 2020 – Research on Email Addresses

Location: Michigan State University, Behavior, Information, and Technologies Lab

Date: June 2020 – Aug 2020

Collaborators: Anjali Munasinghe, Dr. Emilee Rader

My Role: Student Co-Investigator

The Challenge: Why are some people receiving email from senders they have no affiliation? Why are others choosing not to give out their real email address? How does this effect you?

The Process

Discovery: Why does this matter?

Methods: Interviews. Coding. Grouping codes.

Results: Interesting finds. Presenting to Mid-SURE.

Conclusion: Why this effects you. Design solutions.


For over a decade, Dr. Emilee Rader has been interested in learning why she is receiving odd emails from senders she does not recall sharing her emails with. She would unsubscribe from the companies she did not recognize. She replied to individual senders explaining the emails sent were not reaching the intended recipeint. These misdirected emails became so out of hand Dr. Rader reached out to my colleague Anjali and I to do some investigative research. Our goal was to find out when and why people might give out a fake email address (an email address given out in place of someone’s real email address).


Interviews – Anjali created a range of questions to ask her participants. She did a test interview with me to filter out unnesessary questions and restructure the questions to have a smooth transition from start to finish. These interviews were recorded and transcribed by an approved third party. I anonymized each transcription and fixed any speech-to-text errors the third party made.

Coding – Each transcription was uploaded to NVivo, a qualitative data analysis computer software package. I read through each transcription looking for important information and trends stated by the participants across all transcriptions. Each time I found something interesting, I assigned it a code, or a tag. A code is a short description of the content. For example, I assigned the “Real Email Address” code whenever a participant stated something about their real email address. I came up with a total of 398 codes.

Grouping Codes – From the 398 codes, I was able to group together similar codes, such as what situations people give out email addresses, why they give out email addresses, and which type of email address was given (fake, real, personal spam, etc.). It was interesting to see in what situations a person would give out an email address and which situations they would not give one out. It really depended on why the person felt the need to give out an email address. For example, some people felt they were being helpful giving out any email address. Those same people would give out a fake email address to not be bothered by unwanted emails. Others had similar experiences to that of Dr. Rader’s odd emails appearing and were aware that giving out a fake email address could potentially cause someone else to experience the same issue.


Interesting Finds – The most interesting finds can be found on my poster here. Sommething interesting I found was each participant at some point during the interview said they would not give an email address in one situation and all participants also said they would give out an email address in another situation. The situations in which participants would or would not give an email address varied a lot but their reasons for their actions did not. Those who did not give an email address mostly did not do so for privcay concerns and to feel good about their choice. Those who did give out an email address did so almost equally in online and in-person situations.

90% of the participants agreed that it was important for an email address to look legitimate, meaning it should include a combination of first and last names, initials, and numbers with an at the end. Reasons for providing a legitimage-looking email address included finding it hard to lie, being scared they might get caught giving a fake email address, and using real name or initials in the fake email address was easier to do.

The most common reason for giving out an email address was to be helpful but not bothered. Participants had a tendency to help out those asking for an email address because participants themselves have been the one asking for email addresses in the past. Some participants saw giving out an email address as a one-time thing and it would not effect them beyond this moment in time. A few participants even felt the need to stop the person from asking for an email address by providing writing down an illegible email address.

The last realling interesting find was that over half of the participants knew that the fake email address they provided might belong to someone else. Some participants said they knew there was a chance the fake email address may be a real email address. Others assumed the fake email address given was an unused email address. Less than half the participants were against giving out a fake email address, meaning this issue is likely to continue unless more privacy protection is put in place to prevent it.

Presenting for Mid-SURE – I presented my poster with the findings to the Mid-Michigan Symposium for Undergraduate Research Experiences (Mid-SURE). Feel free to check out my video presentation here.


Why This Effects You – Because fake emails resembled those of real email addresses, anyone is susceptible to receiving misdirected email from senders with no affiliation to the recipient. This study highlighted the increased concern for privacy amongst email users, in terms of exerting some control over who has their real email address. Our findings helped us understand email users’ motivations, which will enable us to make recommendations for ways that email might become more privacy-friendly.

Design Solutions – Based on my findings, I came up with a few design solutions to stop people from giving out a fake email address and prevent misdirected email. Having to answer a questionnaire, such as what is your pet’s name or your mother’s maiden name, to verify it is you giving your real email address would be intended to prevent someone from providing a fake email address. Email providers, such as Google, could offer each user a secondary email address intended to collect unwanted spam email. A built-in feature asking users where they would like emails to be filtered to and learn user responses to detect potential misdirected email in the future.

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