How to Trace Emails Back to Their Source IP Address

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How to Trace Emails Back to Their Source IP Address
How to Trace Emails Back to Their Source IP Address

When you get an email notice, the first thing you do is verify the sender, right? It is the easiest approach to determine who sent the email and what it is likely to contain.

But did you realize that each email contains much more information than what most email applications display? The email header contains a wealth of information about the sender, which you may use to track the email back to its origin.

Here’s how and why you would wish to track that email back to its source.

Why Trace an Email Address?

Before we go into how to trace an email address, let’s talk about why you’d want to do it in the first place.

Malicious emails are all too common in today’s world. Scam, spam, virus, and phishing emails are all too frequent in inboxes. If you track an email back to its origin, you may be able to figure out who (or where!) it came from.

In other circumstances, you may track the origin of an email to permanently remove it from your inbox by blocking a persistent source of spam or abusive material; server administrators do the same.

(If you wish to keep your email identity hidden, learn to send truly anonymous emails.)

How to Trace an Email Address

The whole email header may be used to track an email address back to its source. The email header includes routing information as well as email metadata, which you are unlikely to be interested in. However, such information is critical in determining the origin of the email.

Most email applications do not show the whole email header by default since it contains technical information that is relatively worthless to the untrained eye. However, most email applications allow you to see the whole email header. You only need to know where to look and what to look for.

  • Full Gmail Email Header: Open your Gmail account, then go to the email you wish to track down. Select Show original from the drop-down option in the top-right corner.
  • Full Outlook Email Header: Double-click the email to be traced, then go to File > Properties. The data is visible in the internet headers.
  • Full Email Header in Apple Mail: Navigate to View > Message > Raw Source after opening the email you want to trace.
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Of course, there are several email applications available. A fast online search will disclose how to locate your whole email header in your preferred client. When you examine the complete email header, you’ll see what I mean by “full of technical info.”

Understanding the Data in a Full Email Header

There seems to be a lot of information. Consider the following: you read the email header chronologically, from bottom to top (oldest information at the bottom), and each new server through which the email passes adds Received to the header.

Take a look at this example email header from my MakeUseOf Gmail account:

There’s a lot of data here. Let’s dissect it. First, learn what each line signifies (reading from bottom to top).

  • Reply-To: The email address to which you respond.
  • From: Displays the message sender; this information is easily forgeried.
  • Content-type: Informs your browser or email client how to interpret the email’s content. UTF-8 (as shown in the sample) and ISO-8859-1 are the most often used character sets.
  • MIME-Version: Specifies the email format standard currently in use. MIME-Version is usually “1.0.”
  • The topic of the email’s contents.
  • To: The email’s intended recipients; may include additional addresses.
  • DKIM-Signature: DomainKeys Identified Mail validates the domain from which the email was sent and should prevent email spoofing and sender fraud.
  • The “Received” line indicates each server that the email passes through before arriving in your inbox. You read the “Received” lines from bottom to top; the originator is on the bottom line.
  • Authentication-Results: A record of the authentication tests that were performed; may include more than one authentication technique.
  • Received-SPF: The Sender Policy Framework (SPF) is a component of the email authentication process that prevents counterfeiting of sender addresses.
  • Return-Path: The location of non-sent or bounced messages.
  • ARC-Authentication-Results: Another authentication standard is the Authenticated Receive Chain (ARC), which checks the identities of the email intermediates and servers that route your message to its ultimate destination.
  • ARC-Message-Signature: The signature, like DKIM, takes a snapshot of the message header information for validation.
  • ARC-Seal: Similar to DKIM, it “seals” the ARC authentication results and the message signature by confirming their contents.
  • X-Received: Distinct from “Received” in that it is non-standard; that is, it may not be a permanent address, such as a mail transfer agent or Gmail SMTP server. (See note below.)
  • X-Google-Smtp-Source: Displays the email being transferred over a Gmail SMTP server.
  • Delivered-To: The email’s ultimate recipient is listed in this header.
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To trace an email, you do not need to comprehend all of these terms. However, if you learn to examine the email header, you may rapidly begin to track down the email sender.

Tracing the Original Sender of an Email

To get the original email sender’s IP address, look at the first Received line in the complete email header. The IP address of the server that sent the email is shown next to the first Received line. This is also known as X-Originating-IP or Original-IP.

Locate the IP address, then go to MX Toolbox. Enter the IP address into the box, choose Reverse Lookup from the drop-down option, and press Enter. The search results will show a range of data about the transmitting server.

mxtool supertool reverse ip address lookup result

Unless the IP address in question is one of the millions of private IP addresses. In such instance, the following notice will appear:

mxtool reverse ip address lookup private address

The following IP ranges are private:

  • 0.0.0-10.255.255.255
  • 16.00-172.31.255.255
  • 168.0.0-192.168.255.255
  • 0.0.0-239.255.255.255

Lookups for IP addresses in specified ranges will provide no results.

Of course, there are several useful programs available that will automate this procedure for you. While learning about comprehensive email headers and their contents is useful, there are instances when you need rapid information. Furthermore, you want to track emails for free, not for a lot of money.

Check out the following header analyzers:

  • GSuite Toolbox Messageheader
  • Email Header Analyzer MX Toolbox
  • Email Header Trace with IP Address (email header analyser + IP address tracer)

However, the outcomes are not always consistent. In the case below, I know that the sender is nowhere near the supposed location, which is described as being in the midst of a reservoir near Wichita.

trace email address sending user using email header

In this case, your success in tracing an email will vary based on the sender’s email provider. For example, if you attempt to trace an email sent from a Gmail account, you’ll only get the location of the last Google server that processed your email, not the original sender’s IP address.

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Can You Really Trace an IP Address from an Email?

Tracing an IP address via an email header might be beneficial in certain situations. Perhaps a particularly vexing spammer or the source of frequent phishing emails.

Certain emails will only arrive from certain areas; for example, your PayPal emails will not come from China. In this regard, establishing the origin of an email is not an exact science, at least not using readily available methods. Because so many people use free email services like Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo, average internet users will find it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to trace an email received from such services or an IP address associated with the sender.

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