Opinion: The dangers of e-mail boo boos

The other week, much to my surprise, an e-mail arrived in my inbox that shouldn’t have.

It was a note from a fairly prominent Ottawa business owner who was, it appeared, planning on selling the operation. The e-mail was to a potential investor and a third-party accountant, and contained several juicy details on what appeared to be a pending transaction.

This was serious, serious stuff, and certainly something you don’t want to erroneously place in the hands of your local business press – unless you want to (and if that’s the case, my e-mail address is at the foot of this page).

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The really remarkable thing, though, is that it’s not the first time this has happened to me recently. Not by a long shot.

Why, just two weeks prior, pretty much the same thing occured – this time it was an executive at a well-known local firm that sent me a mistaken missive, containing yet more details on what looked like another pending transaction.

A few months ago, again, I received a mistaken and very sensitive e-mail from another nameless businessperson.

I didn’t use any of the coughed-up information in any of these cases, and I think it was the right decision. After sending a polite reply to  each of the senders, in most cases I received a very relieved “thank you” note.

But the incidents illustrate quite vividly the potential pitfalls of modern e-mail technology, and how the seemingly innocuous click of a mouse can have serious and potentially hellish implications.

E-mail address auto-complete, for instance – which has nearly gotten me in trouble a couple times – is a big one, especially for busy people who may hit “send” without thinking twice.

And I get chills even thinking about the potential mishaps lurking behind the dreaded “send all” button.

Indeed, we’re all guilty of making e-mail blunders of varying magnitudes at one time or another, as a national survey released in late 2009 by staffing agency The Creative Group revealed. In it, nearly eight of every ten advertising and marketing executives admitted they’d made a major goof-up at least once during their e-mailing careers.

When put to the question, “Have you ever mistakenly e-mailed someone the wrong message or copied someone on a message without intending to?”, 78 per cent of respondents surveyed said “yes.”

Which is why it’s so interesting that Google recently announced a new Gmail feature allowing hapless mailers to cancel delivery of messages up to 30 seconds after clicking “send” (Gmail has included a ‘cancel send’ feature for a while, but never for a 30 second period).

It’s a fairly obvious and very handy feature that many  e-mail services, quite frankly, ignore. Perhaps its another example of Google’s ability to listen to the marketplace – albeit a slightly embarrased one.

Certainly, the new feature will likely save face for more than a few folks.

Although, unlike the unfortunate senders I’d mentioned above, I suppose you’d still have to realize you’ve made a mistake in the first place.


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