This error was revealed and written up by Karl Fogel.
Yesterday I received email from a hotel, confirming a reservation for a room. But it wasn’t meant for me; it was meant for “Kathy Fogel” (whom I’ve never met), and was sent to “firstname.lastname@example.org”.
Now, I do have the account “email@example.com”, but I’d never received email for “k.fogel” before. As I’d always thought “.” was a significant character in email addresses, I didn’t see how I could have gotten this mail. It turns out, though, that Google ignores “.” when it’s in the username portion of a gmail address. My friend Brian Fitzpatrick knew this already, and pointed me to Google’s explanation. (I learned later that others have been suprised by this behavior too.)
So the error revealed a feature — at least, I’m fairly sure Google would consider it a feature, although the exact motivation for it is still not clear to me. It might be a technical requirement caused by merging several legacy user databases, or it might simply be to prevent confusion among addresses that only differ by dots.
Anyway, I called the hotel, and eventually managed to make them understand that I had no idea who Kathy Fogel was, and that I’d accidentally gotten an email intended for her. They said they’d resend, and of course I said “Wait, no, it’ll just come to me again!” But they swore they had a different email address on file for her, and indeed, I haven’t gotten a second email.
Which raises another question: how did they send the mail to “firstname.lastname@example.org” in the first place? Clearly, Kathy Fogel cannot have that address, because Google will not allow any other “dot variants” of an address to be registered after the first. (Besides, if she did have that address, we’d be getting each other’s mail all the time, and we’re not.) It’s also unlikely that she mistakenly given them that address herself, since they already had another address in place by the time I called.
A computer wouldn’t substitute domain names in an email address like that. The only thing I can think of is that somehow, humans are, at least in some cases, intimately involved in sending out confirmation emails from DoubleTree hotels. I say “intimately” because this was no mere cut-and-paste mistake. Someone had to transcribe an email address by hand, and accidentally put “gmail.com” where the original said “yahoo.com” or “aol.com” or whatever.
I hope Kathy has a nice trip.