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A company are saying they sent an email to me. I have gone through all of my inbox, junk, and deleted files and the email still doesn’t exist. They have asked me to prove the email never got to me by asking my email provider to send over log details but I have looked into this and it is impossible.

Is there any other way to prove an email wasn’t sent to me? Also I have asked them to resend the email but they are saying because the email was automatically generated from an email sent to them they don’t have a copy of the sent email.

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  • 23
    You cannot prove that you did not get a mail the same as you cannot prove that you did not get a snail mail letter. May 19 at 3:12
  • 40
    How can they prove they sent the email they don't even have... May 19 at 4:29
  • 10
    Please write in sentences ...
    – schroeder
    May 19 at 8:13
  • 15
    This screams scam to me
    – Hobbamok
    May 19 at 18:12
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    @GACy20 Each delivery is separate one. Even if both recipient and bcc are on your own server you can successfully deliver to one and fail on another (disk full, mailbox locked, etc.) And if any of them is not on your server, then control is completely out of your hands once letter leaves your premises. May 20 at 9:35

5 Answers 5

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This is one of those situations where Amazon is asking someone to send a picture proving that a package was never delivered. You can't.

In general, you cannot "prove a negative".

Trying to get your email provider to supply logs will be difficult and might take a long time. And they might not do it. What will be a lot easier and faster is for the company to check their own email logs for proof that they sent the email. They don't need a copy, just a log entry.

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  • 49
    Even if they sent the mail it does not mean that it got received. Even some major mail providers accept mail and then silently delete it if they consider it spam or similar. May 19 at 9:29
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    @SteffenUllrich absolutely, but the company forcing an end-user to "prove" the lack of receipt is insane. They should confirm for themselves that the email was sent and was sent to the correct recipient. Troubleshooting 101: did the fist step in the process complete successfully?
    – schroeder
    May 19 at 9:42
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    Proving that you didn't receive a specific email at a specific time on a specific date sounds quite a bit easier than proving that you did not receive a specific email ever. So the sequence "the company shows you log proof that they sent the email, then asks you to prove that you did not receive it" is not unreasonable.
    – Brilliand
    May 20 at 4:51
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    @HagenvonEitzen: "it was your responsibilty that it got dropped afterwards" if Microsoft drops the mail (hotmail.com or live.com are known for this) it is unlikely your responsibility as the simple user of such a Microsoft service. Anyway, mail is not a protocol with guaranteed delivery. There is no (mandatory) feedback back to the sender that the mail got delivered. And non-delivery reports are not guaranteed to be successfully delivered to the original sender either. Apart from that they are often ignored since they are technical mumble jumble many users don't understand. May 20 at 15:52
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    "In general, you cannot "prove a negative" - Why? Proving that you received an e-mail is close to impossible if you have deleted it while it is easy to prove that you did not receive it if you have some log file of the server saying that the delivery of the mail failed for some reasons. It always depends on the circumstances if it is easier to "prove a positive" or "prove a negative". May 21 at 13:01
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The answer above by @schroeder is spot-on (+1). It is impossible for you as the recipient to prove that you didn't receive an email. However, the sender does have the ability to prove that they sent an email, and that the mail server that handles incoming mail for your domain received it, and that this mail server acknowledged receipt.

The diagram below shows the journey that an email message makes from the sender to the recipient:

enter image description here

The sender's outgoing SMTP mail server will typically log every delivery attempt. When the message is handed off from the sender's outgoing SMTP server to the recipient's incoming MX server, the incoming mail server will acknowledge receipt with a 2xx response and will usually include a unique identifier that it assigned to the message in this response. The sender's outgoing SMTP server will typically include all of this in its logs. So, if there is any question as to whether a message was sent, and whether it was delivered (at least to the recipient's incoming MX server for their domain), this should all be in the sender's outgoing SMTP server logs.

Of course, even if the recipient's incoming MX server received the message, it is still possible that the recipient may not receive the message in their inbox. This can happen if the recipient's incoming MX server dropped the message, or treated it as spam, or otherwise mishandled the message. But, at least the sender can show that they sent the message, and that the message made it to the recipient's incoming MX server, and that the recipient's incoming MX server acknowledged receipt of the message. If the recipient never received the message in their inbox, then the recipient can go to the admin of their incoming MX server, armed with the logs provided by the sender, and ask the admin to track down the missing message, and ask for an explanation.

As you can see, this all hinges on the sender being able to access their outgoing SMTP server logs. If the sender outsources their outgoing email to a third party provider, it might be difficult to get the provider to pull these log records, as this is typically beyond the level of service that most mail providers offer (at least at the individual/SOHO/SMB level). However, an outgoing SMTP service such as UltraSMTP, makes these log records available to end users through a self-serve web interface, so that end users can get the information they need themselves to track down problems with non-received messages. [FD, I am the developer.]

enter image description here

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  • If the sender is a malicious entity, they can fake it as long as there is no digital signature. In short, one needs the non-repudation.
    – kelalaka
    May 20 at 19:38
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With @mti2935 already having explained the technical details:

"prove" to which standard? To a forensics level as if it were criminal evidence? Nope, you can't. The old problem of proving a negative. Prove to me that there's not a picture of my cat orbiting Saturn.

But "prove" to the level required to convince some call center agent? Sure. Ask for the exact time they sent the message (if they know they sent it, certainly they can say when, right?) then check your log files around that time. No message received from their address around that time? There's your proof. Snip the log excerpt, black out any info you don't want to share, send it to them and say "you claim you send the mail at XYZ date/time, but as you can see my mail server did not receive a mail from you at or around that time. You may have sent it somewhere else or had some other kind of communication failure."

TBH, I'm quite sure there's a process to re-send the mail manually. It's just that whoever you're talking to is either too lazy or doesn't know about it.

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    Most people don't have a mail server they can see logs on - that is why they want to ask the ISP. However even then as the other answers say that is not sufficient.
    – mmmmmm
    May 20 at 15:27
  • Asking yout ISP (internet service provider) will also be useless if you email is supplied by a third party such as Google or Microsoft... In addition, the latter loves to move important mails to "junk" and then deletes them automatically after 10 days... (I had to rescue a few mails from junk already, and it happened to my mother too just recently...)
    – DetlevCM
    May 20 at 16:55
  • @mmmmmm yes, I realize that most people don't run their own mailserver. I wonder what they're doing on the Internet but that's another question. (no, I'm serious, these days, everything important including all your password resets are sent by mail. Can't fathom why you'd want that in the hands of a 3rd party)
    – Tom
    May 20 at 20:49
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    @Tom TLS for SMTP is hop by hop, and protects the transmission (not the data at rest). So it's decrypted at each mailserver and re-encrypted (which is how "Received:" headers get added). So as mmmmmm said, all the servers on the route from the sender can access the plain text of the email without difficulty. If you want to encrypt the content, you need something like S/MIME which very few folks use.
    – abligh
    May 21 at 8:07
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    @Tom I picked a random message in GMail and counted the number of Received: headers and the answer was 5. Most people pick up their email from an IMAP (or POP) server. Almost everyone uses a third party smarthost to send from. The operators of both those services certainly have access to the plaintext. The way to avoid that is S/MIME or similar.
    – abligh
    May 21 at 13:07
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It is possible if both parts can check the logs. If the sender has the QueueID provided by the destination, the problem is with the destination server. In that case, the sysadmin of the destination can check what happened with the message.

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  • What is a "QueueID"? Did you mean the message ID?
    – schroeder
    Jun 1 at 18:55
  • The QueueID is the identifier added to any message in the delivery process. Is the way where the mail server track the message status and allow check the specifical message status any time (with the timestamp) Jun 2 at 12:58
-1

It is unreasonable to provide logs, unless this is a pre-agreed service. Redacting details for every non-matching entry could be automated but not unless there was a serious business case.

However, depending upon where you work, the email may never truly be deleted, nor silently filtered (is your firm SOX Act compliant?). If it was important to them they should have a receipt or your return (manual) ack response.

They should have a copy with timestamps. But some large blue chips stage their email according to priority and their DEP policies.

Do you use a gmail/hotmail/protonmail address? They may have confused them.

Automatically generated huh? They are not in a good position. Not keeping a copy is effectively the destruction of that information.

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