Home Advice & How-ToGuides Online Safety 101: Finding What Accounts use Your Email Address
Home Advice & How-ToGuides Online Safety 101: Finding What Accounts use Your Email Address

Online Safety 101: Finding What Accounts use Your Email Address

by Fred Decker

It’s pretty much a given that your email inbox will fill up rapidly throughout the day.  Even if you usually keep your inbox open, you may not realize how many new messages arrive every day (taking a break from email for a day can be an eye-opening experience). Most people come to grudgingly accept this as one of the minor annoyances of modern life, but it’s actually more than that.  Every sender represents a potential security risk, so it’s worth knowing how to find all accounts registered to your email address. 

Giving My Email Isn’t a Big Deal, Is It? 

It’s easy enough to cope with inbox overload, no matter how tech-savvy you are.  You can label unwanted emails as spam, set up filters to automatically divert them from your inbox, or — if you use Gmail — allow Google to categorize your incoming mails into default tabs such as Social, Promotions or Forums. 

That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t address the core problem: a lot of sites — good, bad or indifferent — have your email address.  Even if none of those sites are actively malicious themselves (which isn’t always a given), you’ve put all of them, collectively, in charge of your digital security.  If even one of those sites is hacked or otherwise breached, your email is out on the open market. 

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Not only can fraudsters leverage your email address for many forms of ill-gotten gains (including scamming your friends and family), many sites use your email address as a username for logging in.  That’s half of your username and password combo, so if attackers can break or steal your password — or buy it, if it’s also being traded on the dark web — that gives them access to a big chunk of your online identity. 

In short, it’s potentially a Very Bad Thing. 

How Do I Find Out What Sites My Email Address is Registered To? 

There are a few ways to approach this.  If you open the Settings on your Google account, for example, under Security you’ll find an option to “Manage Third-Party Access.”  This lists sites and apps that currently have access to your account (including your Gmail) with your blessing.  Open the list, and you can cancel that permission for any app or site with one click or tap. 

Most email clients will let you see all emails from a given sender with just a click or two, but aren’t set up to let you simply sort your emails by sender.  One workaround is to use your email app’s search feature, and in the “From” or “Sender” field use an asterisk.  That’s a “wild card” character, for search purposes, and it means “any combination of characters or words.”  So searching “a*” will bring up every sender starting with a, “b*” will bring up all senders starting with b, and so on (remember to do this with numbers, as well). 

That kind of long-form searching is effective, but it’s tedious and it probably takes more of your time than you’re willing to invest (at least, on any kind of regular basis).  A simpler option is to harness the power of Spokeo’s people-search tools, and use our Reverse Email Lookup to search your own email address.  The search results will find all accounts linked to your email address, as long as they’re searchable.  That gives you the information you’ll need, to start reasserting control over your email (if you use multiple email addresses, search the rest separately). 

Cleaning Up Your Accounts

Once you’ve gone through the process of identifying all of the places your email has been used to set up an account, the next step is to weed out the unnecessary ones.  Some will be from long-forgotten social media accounts and blogging platforms (who knew Hi5 and LiveJournal were still around?), where you can log in and close out your old account after copying and saving anything you want to keep for nostalgia’s sake. 

Others will be websites, publishers’ sites or private forums where you once wanted to read an article or post a question, and needed to set up a free account in order to have access.  Unless it’s a site you still visit regularly, visit one last time and close that account.  The account-closing process is easier on some sites than others, so this may take some work.  You can also “unsubscribe” from receiving emails but keep the account open, if you’re uncertain about a given site. 

You might find a search result for your email that’s linked to a site you don’t recognize, or that doesn’t seem to have any visible purpose for existing.  Those are the most concerning, because it’s hard to know why they have your email.  If the site shows a name, phone number or contact email address, you can chase that down through Spokeo’s search tools as well.  Otherwise you can go to ICANN, the body that registers internet domain names, and type the site’s address (for example, “www.suspect-site.com”) into its registration lookup tool.  The lookup will tell you the site’s registered owners, and from there you can use Spokeo again to try to identify them. 

Disposable Email Addresses Are the “Ounce of Prevention”

If you think this sounds like more work than you’re prepared to undertake on a regular basis, you’re probably right.  Proverbially, an ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure, and the ounce of prevention is pretty easy in this instance.  First, click through to read each site’s cookie and privacy policies before signing up, and opt out of everything you can.  That won’t work with illicit sites, but it cuts down on the spam and advertising that’s triggered by legitimate onces. 

Next, instead of giving your real email address when you sign up for a free account at a new site, use a disposable email address.  There are plenty of vendors providing this service (Apple even lets you hide your real email when using the “Sign in with Apple” button on a site), each with its own strengths.  Check out a few, and find the one that works for you. 

For scenarios where you’d prefer to use your real email address but still want to maintain some oversight into how it’s used (or abused), Gmail users can add a bit of accountability.  When you sign up, add a plus sign (+) between your username and the @gmail part and then add on a suffix identifying the site (“myname+dubioussite@gmail.com”).  All incoming emails from that account will use this customized version of your email address, and you can set a filter to whisk them away from your inbox. 

More importantly, you can use that to trace illicit use and privacy violations.  If you receive a message addressed to that customized email, you know how they got your address.  The original site either shared, sold or — worst of all — lost it in a security breach.