Disposable email addresses: What you give away when you people offer you spam

Everyone has been asked to provide an email address at least once, whether it’s for using that coupon you used at a restaurant, to comment on a blog, or for signing up for an account on a website[1]. Of course, for various reasons, you don’t want to give away your primary address. How do you solve it? What you’re looking for is a disposable email address.

“Disposable Email Address systems cut waaaaaaaaay down on email spam”


Sub-addressing

One solution is sub-addressing. From the Wikipedia page:

Some mail services allow a user to append a tag to their email address (e.g., where joeuser@example.com is the main address, which would also accept mail for joeuser+work@example.com or joeuser-family@example.com). The text of tag may be used to apply filtering and to create single-use addresses.

Some of the more common webmail providers that provide sub-addressing have a green cell in the “sub-addressing” column in the Comparison of webmail providers Wikipedia article.
Sub-addressing isn’t all that well-known, but it can be very handy, especially as a single-use address. You can set up filters so that emails whose TO header contains the tag can, say, be moved to a folder. If you only use the sub-address for a single site and you start getting emails that aren’t from that site (e.g. spam), you’ll know that your address has most likely been leaked somehow. The problem with this is, while most computer checking systems don’t bother checking for sub-addresses, anyone who knows about sub-addressing will be able to pick out your actual email address.

Separate email account

Most people either don’t know of sub-addressing or would rather something with a little more privacy; they’ll make a separate email address to give away. This way, emails sent to this address are separate from the important emails in your primary account. Also, if you sign up using a different provider, you’ll gain access to the services offered by that provider. But, as this is a full email account, you have to go through the tedious step of actually registering and setting up your account. Nonetheless, this is quite useful, and I use this strategy for accounts on the Web that I care about.

Mailinator

Avoids Spam. Looks darn smug about it

For those situations where it is “required” to give an email address so that you can be spammed, Mailinator is your best friend. Mailinator is not your typical email service. You don’t need to sign up to use it. Email addresses are created on-the-fly, so you can have whatever @mailinator.com address you want.

Mailinator is a different kind of email service. The biggest difference is that you don’t need to sign up. Any email name you can think of already exists at Mailinator.com. Want BrianTheSkink@mailinator.com? You got it. Want to be JacquesKooStow? ScaryGavyn? GraysonTheMason? No problem. They exist when you create them and they are just waiting for you to check your inbox.

Mailinator FAQ

There is no password. Just go to Mailinator.com and type in the name you used. Or, even more quickly, you can do it right in the URL. If the address you used was example@mailinator.com, then you can go to http://example.mailinator.com/ to go to its inbox directly.

You might be wondering, if anyone can check an inbox, can’t someone else get my emails?. From the FAQ:

Um… if there is no password, can’t someone else get my email?
Yup. For this reason, you might want to pick an unusual name. You can pick bob@mailinator.com if you want, but maybe you’d be better off with boohabunny@mailinator.com – except for now that we’ve mentioned that name in the FAQ everyone will know about it. So try tugboatcaptain@mailinator.com … oops! In any case, its perfectly possible for anyone to see an email if they know the name. Mailinator generates a random name for you every time you visit the home page. If you want an obscure or unusual name, and you used up all your imagination today, you can use auto-gen name.
Note that there are something like (rough approximate) 830 trillion trillion trillion different Mailinator email addresses. You really do have some latitude to pick a unique one.

This sounds pretty insecure, what if I want to send important emails with sensitive super-secret information in them to Mailinator?
Then you are a stupid-head. That isn’t what this is for.

“There is no privacy policy.”

Anyway, I don’t think Mailinator would appreciate me “stealing” more excerpts from their FAQ, so you might as well go and read it for yourself.

There’s one more thing that I should mention about Mailinator: you can’t send emails from it. Think about it; that would just add to the spam problem.

Spam is inevitable, but the next time someone asks you for an email address to spam, you know what to do.


  1. ^ I’ll feature BugMeNot in the near future.
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