How do you deal with digital doppelgängers?

14 Oct

I’ve had digital doppelgängers for at least 20 years. I’m mostly talking about people with similar email addresses, though I mention other variations below. As both a purist and an early adopter, my email addresses have often been place names or my name, correctly spelled, with no strange characters or trailing numbers. My email address on AOL was the name of a tiny island, but it was also an Italian word and surname. I still get a lot of misdirected mail there.  My main email address now is my name — my nickname Kay and my surname — on a huge global email network. Not kaysurname365 or kay10surname.  Since Kay is also the English pronunciation of the letter K and my surname is as common as buttons, I get a lot of misdirected mail.


The phenomenon is interesting for reasons of privacy and protocol. When a piece of paper mail for one of my neighbors is placed accidentally in my mailbox, I can see the mistake without opening the envelope. I know that a caller has the wrong phone number when she asks for a name that isn’t mine. The amount that I unintentionally invade someone’s privacy is limited. I might discover something from the envelope or caller, but unless I’m nosy or nefarious, it isn’t much. Due of the nature of email, however, I often can’t tell that the email is misaddressed until after I have read it and learned what might have been very private information.

It is a bit of an etiquette dilemma, as well. If the mail is in my inbox, it is mine and I can do with it what I wish.  In the past year I’ve had the following things misaddressed to me:

  • A confirmation of someone’s registration for a premium online service, with her billing information (partially included in the mail), but my email address.
  • Group emails among employees of a company and some contractors, which included detailed and confidential attachments.
  • Notes about family travel plans, illnesses, children’s events, and funerals; all sent by people who are not related to me.
  • Desperate sales letters from a Honda dealership in Massachusetts, in response to “my” query. I don’t want a Honda and I don’t live in Massachusetts.

What do you do in those cases? If you have this problem, do you simply delete the mails? Mark them as spam or mute them?  Reply to them all?  Reply to some? I found a couple of articles from The Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune that suggest a lot of replying is going on.

The amount of time I’m willing to invest in correcting someone’s mistake is usually proportionate to the content of the message. With the premium service signup, I tried to contact the service via email about the mistake, and when that got me nowhere, I changed her password and cancelled her account. It was unsafe for her to have the wrong address on her account and it was a significant annoyance to me. I deleted the first few company emails, but when they kept coming and included requests for feedback from the other Kay, I wrote to the initial sender and let him know the mistake. He apologized and I never heard from them again. Most of the misplaced family mails are simply deleted unless the content makes me think that the other Kay would be put into a social difficulty by her lack of reply. After the Honda dealership sent a detailed note to my address, I wrote back to inform them of the mistake. However, they seem to encourage every salesperson at that location to email a potential buyer, so I’ve stopped replying and started reporting them all as spam while cursing their names.

I’m getting closer to one of my doppelgängers due to a recent email exchange with her sister. I learned that she is the Kay who used my email address to sign up for a job database a couple years ago, and therefore probably also the Kay about whom I wrote several polite emails to potential employers. “I’m sorry, but you must have the wrong email address.  I am not the Kay Surname you are trying to reach.  Please check your records for a phone number or a street address to reach her.  Thank you.”  The sister told me that there were numbers after the name in that Kay’s address, which she had accidentally omitted.  I was tempted to ask for the address so that I could forward misdirected mail in the future, but then decided I really didn’t want to be in that business.

The most amusing digital identity mix-ups I’ve had were with my porn doppelgängers. A long time ago, I got an email from an ex-boyfriend with a link to a photo. The note said something like, “I just want to be sure you know this is online.”  I looked at the image and was confused.  It was an amateur shot of a naked woman on her hands and knees, smiling back at the camera. I had no idea who she was and that was what I replied to him. “That’s not you?”  Um, no, though I was flattered by his warped memory of my figure; the woman in the photo looked terrific. More recently I got a similar mail from another ex who thought that several hardcore shots in which the model’s face was clearly visible were of me.  He was alarmed that private photos might have been put online without my knowledge. She did look a bit like me, I suppose. I’m not sure if it’s sweet that my exes want to defend me from revenge porn or disturbing that they see amateur porn and are convinced it’s me.

I’ve also had an unintentional doppelgänger in a game. I chose a name for an alt that turned out to be very similar to the name of a much-hated player, as I quickly discovered.  I got threats, insults, and had other players scream at me about about the behavior of the other.  When I tried to point out that I was a level 10 character of a different class, I was accused of being one of his alts, created just for deception. Oh please. I deleted that character after only signing on a few times.

There are, of course, intentionally deceptive doppelgängers, though I’m lucky to not have first-hand experience of that. People set up email addresses that appear to be famous/powerful people or customer service, and use them for fraud. Friends in Second Life and MMORPGs have had griefers impersonate them, usually by creating a display name that looks very similar. One woman I knew in SL got into a huge dramatic fight with someone who she swore had copied her appearance, though if you’re buying shapes/skins/outfits from a store and not modifying them at all, I think you should expect to have duplicates.

Does anyone have a better method of dealing with badly addressed email or other dopplegängers? I’d love to hear some stories.

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Posted by on October 14, 2014 in Culture, Side Topics


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