Email Tracking Programs

I asked my aunt the question, “Where does an email go after it is sent but before it is downloaded and recieved by the recipient?” and she told me to download an email tracer program that works on DOS and can tell me where my email is and the route it takes to get to the recipient.

First of all, where does an email go after it is sent but before it is recieved? And also, do these email tracers exist and where can I get one? Thank you.

The email messages will be stored on the mail server(s) of your ISP or whoever is providing you with the email account (e.g. Hotmail’s servers). Think of them as always-on computers used mostly for storing messages.

It goes to the recipient’s email server, or if it’s down, another email server that thinks it has a good chance of connecting to the recipient’s email server.

You can use traceroute to see how packets get from your computer to another, but a packet is a tiny chunk of an email, web page, or another piece of data transfered over the Internet. And packets are free to take whatever way between computers that they want.

The recipient can look at the headers of the email to see which email servers the message passed through. There’s no good way for the sender to find out what happened, short of asking the recipient after he gets it.

I can see the top of every email I get with no program. I just select to see that information. Here is an actual one that im going to edit a little:

Received: by (mbox Tripper)
(with Red Shift’s pop3 server (cucipop) v9.10 05/30/2001)
X-From_: Thu Jun 21 16:17:04 2001
Return-Path: <>
Received: from ([])
by (8.11.4/8.10.1) with SMTP id f5LNGx602203
for <>; Thu, 21 Jun 2001 16:16:59 -0700
Message-ID: <LYRIS-188276-173635-2001.06.21-18.32.41–>
From: “” <>
Subject: Last Chance: 256MB SDRAM For $44.99!
Date: Thu, 21 Jun 2001 18:22:34 -0400
MIME-Version: 1.0
X-Mailer: Internet Mail Service (5.5.2650.21)
Content-Type: multipart/alternative;

That’s got the tracing info in it. How boring, eh?

Here’s how it works, in layman’s terms, on a typical setup with a modem user on each end:

[li] You hit “Send” on your email message.[/li][li] Your computer uploads the message as one file to your ISP’s mail server.[/li][li] Your mail server breaks the message up into little pieces, called packets, each one addressed to the mail server of your recipient, and sends them to your ISP’s internet gateway computer.[/li][li] The gateway computer sends the packets to phone company computers.[/li][li] Phone company computers on the internet relay the packets to the recipient’s internet gateway computer.[/li][li] The phone companies have to balance the loads on their lines, so the individual packets may take wildly different routes on their way.[/li][li] The phone company computers can store these packets for up to several days, in case your recipient’s ISP is offline for some reason.[/li][li] Your recipient’s gateway machine forwards the packets to the recipient’s mail server.[/li][li] When all the packets arrive, the recipient’s mail server reconstructs the message file, and stores it to await the recipients next mail session.[/li][li] When your recipient checks her mail, the message is downloaded to her computer as one file.[/li]
There’s a lot more detail, and a lot of variation about which computers do which jobs (sometimes the same machine does more than one job), but this is generally accurate.

So what about those emails that say the sender wants to be notified when you read the email, then asks if you want to notify sender now, later, never. But they seem to get notified as soon as you open it anyway. How they do dat?


Some mail servers support this “acknowledge receipt” feature, but not all of them. And then, it’s up to the recipient’s mail server administrators to enable it.

Basically what happens is that the mail server checks the incoming email to see if the acknowlege flag is set, and then when the recipient downloads the email, the mail server automatically generates another email that gets sent back to you.

I’m talking about internet email, here: SMTP and POP protocols. Proprietary systems – like AOL user-to-user email, or Lotus Notes – work differently.

This explains what I was asking, thank you. I am impressed at how complex these packets are. Thanks again.

If your mailer prompted you for a receipt, and you look at the headers on the message, you will probably see one called “Disposition-Notification-To” which gives the email address for notification when you open the mail, should your mailer choose to honor it. That is the one your mailer is prompting you about. The sender can request that kind of notification, as well as one honored automatically by the mail server as bughunter describes. You can’t stop that one, which simply indicates that the mail was delivered, as opposed to the receipt from your mailer, which indicates that you opened it.