Don’t Become the Next Victim of Auto-Complete Errors

Posted by Lea C. Dearing on

The news headlines over the last two weeks provide plenty of examples of email auto-complete gone wrong.  A lawyer sent a confidential and unflattering Senate Intelligence Committee letter to a Twitter prankster that had a fake email address that looked like his client’s, but was not.  The letter was immediately published by the prankster.  A second lawyer sent a privileged email internally at his law firm regarding an undisclosed, confidential SEC investigation of a client.  That lawyer accidentally included a Wall Street Journal reporter as a recipient of the email.  The investigation became front page news. 

Both errors appear to be the result of auto-complete snafus.  In almost every email system, all you need to do is type the first few letters of an intended recipients name or email address and, if you have emailed them before, your email will automatically provide the full email address it thinks you are looking for.  Errors arise when email addresses are similar or when users simply move too fast.

The auto-complete problem is a much broader issue than just these recent law firm errors and is a recurring theme in restrictive covenant and trade secret cases.  In many cases, it is an auto-complete error that exposed the potentially wrongful conduct in the first place.  For example, the auto-correct error comes up when a departing sales person moves to a new company and immediately starts communicating with her prior clients. Those clients have the sales person’s old email address saved into their email system.  When the client emails the sales person, they sometimes just check the first few letters of the email address to make sure it is correct, and do not notice they are emailing the wrong company entirely.  For example, they email JaneDoe@oldemployer.com when they intend to email JaneDoe@newemployer.com.  Employers regularly monitor a departed employee’s old email account and discover non-compete and non-solicit violations when these types of emails hit the old inbox.

There are a few things lawyers, companies and employees can do to lower the risk of becoming the next victim of an auto-complete blunder.  The most obvious advice is to pay more attention and double check your recipient list before sending any sensitive correspondence.  In the reality of this fast-paced world and the rapid pace of correspondence, there are some other practical steps you can take to avoid these issues.  You can clear your auto-complete list to remove any problematic email addresses you know could present a potential problem.  This is also recommended anytime you switch employers.  For example, in the first example above, if you know you have experienced a phishing scam by a fake email address, you can proactively remove that email address from your computer’s auto-complete list to prevent any mix-ups.  If you simply cannot risk an error under any circumstances, then the best option is to simply disable the auto-complete function on your email entirely. 

This will not solve the problem of third-parties inadvertently emailing you at an old email address.  To make the error less likely, you can update your relationships with your new email address by sending them personalized emails from that address pointing out the change, providing a new contact card to update their system, and asking them to delete your old email from their system.   While there is no fool-proof way to avoid the potential for an auto-complete error, taking these steps should reduce the risk.

As always, let me know if you have any questions or if I can help.