When e-mail auto-fill gets you into trouble

NEW YORK • Every new technology is amazing, and every new technology brings its own horrors. For example, there was no such thing as waking up at 30,000ft on the shoulder of a stranger who is covered in your drool until we invented commercial air flight.

And so it is with one small e-mail "feature" that we cannot do without, yet has cost almost everyone who has ever texted or e-mailed a moment of heart-stopping panic: auto-fill.

It is often confused with autocorrect. Here is the difference: Auto-fill fills in names and information based on just a few keystrokes; auto-correct does, too, but it also corrects and predicts writing in the body of a note.

In some ways, auto-fill may be the more problematic function, leading to not just semantic misunderstandings but to entire passels of information being dispatched to the wrong people.

Several months ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York complained in an e-mail to a few staff members that taking one of those "I-am-a-man-of- the-people" subway rides to an event had made him late.

The mayor mistakenly included on this grumpy e-mail thread Michael Powell, a reporter for The New York Times who for years covered city hall.

The result? A perhaps unwelcome article about the mayor's chronic lateness. "I almost deleted his e-mail because the sender only identified himself as 'B'," Mr Powell said. "That struck me as suspicious, like perhaps it was one of those Nigerian or Croatian bankers with a grand idea, if only I'd send my bank account number."

For Ms Britt Kazmac, a New York City tutor, it was the all-too-common erotic message debacle. "I thought I was sexting my husband," she said of her now ex-husband, "and he was playing coy by responding with texts like, 'Why are you sending these to me?' Then I looked more closely, and realised I had been sexting my daughter's Charismatic Christian baby sitter."

So what are people to do when they have made a huge auto-fill error?

First, take heart: If you are using programs like Gmail, you can take back your e-mail within the first 30 seconds of sending, according to a Google spokesman. To enable this feature, follow the directions for the "Undo Send" lab.

What if you recognise the error of your ways after, say, 31 seconds?

"When e-mail gets you into trouble, don't use e-mail to try to get yourself out of trouble," said Mr Will Schwalbe, an Internet etiquette expert. "You can start the apology on e-mail, but you need to continue it with a call, a letter, flowers, wine, whatever it takes. The bigger the faux pas, the more dramatic the gesture. E-mail apologies (even for e-mail errors) are like e-mail thank yous: great for speed but ultimately not very impressive."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2015, with the headline 'When e-mail auto-fill gets you into trouble'. Print Edition | Subscribe