GMail Tip: Use A Plus Sign To Avoid Spam

This technique’s about a decade old, but a lot of people still aren’t using it, and I can’t help but suspect that can only be because they didn’t know about it yet, so let’s revisit:

You have a GMail account, right? Or else Google for Domains? Suppose your email address is dan@gmail.com… did you know that also means that you own:

  • dan+smith@gmail.com
  • dan+something@gmail.com
  • dan+anything-really@gmail.com
  • d.an@gmail.com
  • d..a..n@gmail.com

You have a practically infinite number of GMail addresses. Just put a plus sign (+) after your name but before the @-sign and then type anything you like there, and the email will still reach you. You can also insert as many full stops (.) as you like, anywhere in the first half of your email address, and they’ll still reach you, too. And that’s really, really useful.

Filling in an Equifax registration form.
Often, you end up having to give your email address to companies that you don’t necessarily trust…

When you’re asked to give your email address to a company, don’t give them your email address. Instead, give them a mutated form of your email address that will still work, but that identifies exactly who you gave it to. So for example you might give the email address dan+amazon@gmail.com to Amazon, the email address dan+twitter@gmail.com to Twitter, and the email address dan+pornhub@gmail.com to… that other website you have an account on.

Why is this a clever idea? Well, there are a few reasons:

  • If the company sells your email address to spammers, or hackers steal their database, you’ll know who to blame by the email address they’re sending to. I’ve actually caught out an organisation in this way who were illegally reselling their mailing lists to third parties.
  • If you start getting unwanted mail from somebody (whether because spammers got the email or because you don’t like what the company is sending to you), you can easily block them. Even if you can’t unsubscribe or just because they make it hard to do so, you can just set up a filter to automatically discard anything that comes to that email address in future.
  • If you feel like organising your life better, you can set up filters for that, too: it doesn’t matter what address a company sends from, so long as you know what address they’re sending to, so you can easily have filters that e.g. automatically forward copies of the mortgage statement that come to dan+yourbank@gmail.com to your spouse, or automatically label anything coming to
    dan+someshop@gmail.com with the label “Shopping”.
  • If you’re signing up just to get a freebie and you don’t trust them not to spam you afterwards, you don’t need to use a throwaway: just receive the goodies from them and them block them at the source.
The email address dan+equifax@gmail.com being entered into a form.
Certainly, you can have… THIS email address.

I know that some people get some of these benefits by maintaining a ‘throwaway’ email address. But it’s far more-convenient to use the email address you already have (you’re already logged-in to it and you use it every day)! And if you ever do want a true ‘throwaway’, you’re generally better using Mailinator: when you’re asked for your email address, just mash the keyboard and then put @mailinator.com on the end, to get e.g. dsif9tsnev4y8594es87n65y4@mailinator.com. Copy the first half of the email address to the clipboard, and then when you’re done signing up to whatever spammy service it is, just go to mailinator.com and paste into the box to see what they emailed you.

A handful of badly-configured websites won’t accept email addresses with plus signs in them, claiming that they’re invalid (they’re not). Personally, when I come across these I generally just inform the owner of the site of the bug and then take my business elsewhere; that’s how important it is to me to be able to filter my email properly! But another option is to exploit the fact that you can put as many dots in (the first part of) your GMail address as you like. So you could put d…an@gmail.com in and the email will still reach you, and you can later filter-out emails to that address. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide how to encode information about the service you’re signing up to into the pattern and number of dots that you use.

Go forth and avoid spam.

25 replies to GMail Tip: Use A Plus Sign To Avoid Spam

    • Thanks so much! I’ve been using the plus trick to create custom emails for years, but never did figure out what search term was needed to filter for them.

  1. Great write up! If I didn’t already use my old yahoo to sign up for everything (since it’s already filled with spam), I would definitely take advantage of this. I’ve seen this before but I try to keep my gmail as isolated from the rest of my internet identity as possible and have yet to see one piece of spam in the 10+ years I’ve had it.

  2. It’s also useful for avoiding accidentally misaddressed mail. For several months, I was getting lots of email intended for an American lady whose email is identical to mine apart from an initial in the middle. Unfortunately, the initial was the same as the last letter of our mutual first name and a lot of people just missed it out as a result, because they didn’t ‘see’ it.
    I suggested she give out her email address with a dot on either side of the initial, and it seems to have worked like a charm. The initial stands out clearly and people are obviously remembering to use it now, as I haven’t seen an email for her in several weeks.
    It’s slightly scary how much you can learn about someone just by getting random mail intended for them. Luckily, this lady seems a very nice person.

  3. This is so useful, also for another reason: I’ve managed to set up a gmail account where I’m able to send emails from versions of it with a +, which has allowed me to have a shared gmail account for the board of a local board game club where we can use it to note who is the sender/intended receiver and also have emails sorted accordingly, which for us is important as it allows for transparent yet organized working.

    oh, and capitalization is also something gmail doesn’t make a distinction between even though many websites do treat them as separate email addresses, also useful if you need multiple accounts on the same website.

    • As for how to on sending email from + addresses:
      Go to “settings” -> “Accounts and Import”
      at the “Send mail as” click “Add another email address”
      a pop-up should appear where you can enter the display name you wish to connect to that version of your email and in the email field you write the altered + email adress; keep the “treat as an alias” checbox checked.

    • This is awesome. Saw it as well in my cPanel settings, but didn’t give it much thought. Now after reading all these and doing a revisit, I think all the information on this post & comments section are getting to be quite resourceful. Thanks to you all.

    • Harold: you’re right that many, perhaps most email clients seem to reject multiple consecutive dots in a row, but I can’t find anything in the standards that would require this to be the case: interesting! Thanks for sharing.

  4. I did know about the dots. I’ve been receiving emails addressed to someone with the same name, but people using gmail instead of hotmail or some other provider. And they also don’t know about the fact that putting any number of dots in doesn’t change a thing.

    But I only recently learned about the + sign, when my wife found that out by accident, using +1 after the first part of her email address. So I tried that with my own email and used +2, +A and a few more options. When all that worked, I wanted to find out if this was a general feature, which was how I arrived at this site.
    Thanks, Dan, for sharing!

  5. Great article, still relevant. But here is a situation – let’s say I created myName+Amazon@Gmail.com to signup to Amazon. Now they send me an email to which I want to reply using the same email (with the + sign) I signed up with. Now I hit a brick wall. Can’t do it or I don’t know how to. Can you help?

    Thanks.

    Cheers…
    Thommo

    • Yes, you can do this Tommo! In your GMail settings, hit “Accounts”, then “Add another email address”. Put your special “plus” address into the list as an alias. You’ll be sent a test email to that address (which will come straight back into your Inbox): click the special link in that email. You can now send “from” your other address by using a drop-down next to the From: address when composing email. You can also optionally configure GMail to automatically prefer to reply from the address on which you receive an email, if you do this a lot.

      You can use this technique to send mail “from” almost any address at which you’re able to receive mail, which is especially useful if you have multiple email accounts forwarding to the same place.

  6. Thanks for the guide! I have a concern, if I am a spammer or marketer, and I see an email with plus sign (e.g. abc+123@xyz.com), I might also email another copy to abc@xyz.com knowing that the primary email should be whatever before the plus sign.

    • Hi Nicole,

      You’re right that spammers _could_ copy in the addresses pre-plus sign. This could, of course, be a different person (plus signs are valid in email addresses!), but spammers rarely care. Indeed, some spammers are probably doing this!

      But everything you do that adds effort to what a spammer has to do is valuable. Spammers are generally pretty lazy: sending email is cheap but the number of people who respond to your mail is low, so it’s usually in a spammer’s interest to send a message to a million people and then move on. If they have to spent an extra 5 minutes sorting out a filter for plus signs only to copy in a _few_ extra people… none of which will probably take the bait anyway… then it’s a waste of their time and they needn’t bother.

      If that’s insufficient reassurance, you can can go further! So long as you ONLY give out your email address with a plus sign in it, you can reject any mail that DOESN’T have a plus sign in it. So a spammer not only needs to notice the plus sign – they need to replace the bit afterwards with a different bit, ideally one that you’ve already used elsewhere.

      Or – my favourite technique – you can get your own domain name and set up a “catch-all” email address: i.e. “everything to anything @danq.me comes to me, EXCEPT these addresses”. Then you can give a completely different email address to everybody you deal wth (no plus signs needed) and get all the same advantages. But it does involve buying a domain name (which isn’t a bad idea regardless).

      Choose the right approach for you! Good luck!

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