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.

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

  1. 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.

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