Gmail from God
By: Kelly McDonald
Siri’s lilting voice announced that a message from a certain sender had just appeared in my email inbox. I’m not normally so attentive to them since my life is full of electronic distractions. Most email is nothing more than clumsy attempts to secure my attention. Their claims of outrageous financial rewards and unbridled happiness are more like insults to someone like me. I normally turn off any automatic notifications. But I’ve been receiving some unusual email messages lately. I’m confused about their content so I configured Siri on my MacBook to let me know as soon as one showed up. I wanted to turn my attention to the strange message as soon as it arrived.
My name’s Jonathan. I grew up in a religious family, with an older sister, my mother—the faithful one, and my father, not really around much. My mother used to call me her “little gift from God”, the Old Testament meaning for my name. But now that I’m an adult, my friends just call me Jon, the few friends I have.
I’m an agoraphobian, at least that’s what I call myself. I can’t find that particular spelling when googling it, but I like how it sounds, kind of like some alien species. I haven’t left my house in the past ten years. My sister split when I was a teenager. Then my mother abruptly died from a stroke a few years later. She was my only emotional support. After she left me so suddenly, I stopped trying to cope with my anxieties, my fear, and panic. That’s when I stopped venturing out into the surrounding community. But I’m lucky to have her testamentary trust for support, and the Internet keeps me connected to the world beyond the walls of my home. Since the trust covered my major expenses, I used the Internet to educate myself to make a reasonable but isolated living. As long as I stay inside my home, I can force myself to interact enough with others through email, text-messaging, even a phone call when necessary.
I’m also a digital nerd. My work helps companies to protect themselves from Internet hackers; and I order everything I need online. Thank you, Amazon, and the other Internet delivery services. I live ok, though I spend a lot of time online doing what’s necessary to keep myself afloat. I maintain a tolerable contact with the outside world.
An old tomcat wandered into the garage after my mother died. I guess he wanted to become isolated like me. I just couldn’t bring myself to make him leave. So now he’s my roommate. I call him Mr. Snoot.
It’s the morning of Christmas Eve. Although others are spending time with loved ones, I’m not! Since my mother died, my Christmas seasons are a lonely journey. I usually bury myself in my work until all my clients take time off for their own holiday festivities and family fun. Then I’m really left alone. I spend the week after Christmas brushing up on my technical skills. I try to learn something new about the many technologies I consult with my customers about, hoping to give them some new insights into the Internet, or regarding email, when they contact me after they return to their work in the New Year. But lately, email has me stumped, and I know all about email and how it works.
It all started one morning, several weeks ago, when I received a mysterious message. It wasn’t the typical junk email that fills yours or my inbox. This message seemed to be forwarded to me, redirected from some originally intended recipient. My curiosity perked up. Where was it coming from, and why was I getting it in my Gmail account?
I opened the email message that I had just received this morning. I scanned the message headers for strange anomalies, as I looked for those hidden indicator lines that accompany every message as it travels to its eventual destination. And there they were, the email delivery commands that still have me bewildered:
Received: by 2002:a05:6214:2526:0:0:0:0 with SMTP id gg6csp3335168qvb;
Fri, 24 Dec, 2021 08:07:02 -0700 (MST)
X-Received: by 2002:adf:8b52:: with SMTP id v18mr3832523wra.1.1631480822404;
Fri, 24 Dec, 2021 08:07:02 -0700 (MST)
---------- Forwarded message ---------
From: Sarah <Sarah459@gmail.com>
Date: Fri, December 24, 2021 at 8:06 AM
Subject: Please Help Me God!
That’s right. It looked like an email message from Sarah459, sent to God, then forwarded to me. I’ve been receiving these types of messages for a few weeks now. It’s never the same sender. At first, I simply ignored them. After all, my clients expect me to be suspicious, and I can expertly play that role. But after I had received more than a few of them, I decided to try an experiment with the Gmail message delivery system using a problem-solving principle I learned a long time ago. When some type of technology just doesn’t seem to work right, I’ve learned to create my own tests of validation. It's like I learned in my high school physics class—when I could still go to school—“Define a hypothesis, then design an experiment to prove or deny it.” Mr. Jewkes used to tell us.
With Mr. Snoot in my lap, as I sat in front of my workstation, ready to test my hypothesis, I felt uncomfortably uncertain. I really didn’t think my test message would be accepted. But if I was actually composing a message to God, and it really got delivered, what would I say to Him? It felt a bit like saying my first prayer at my mother’s knee, so many years ago.
But the geek in me soon took control. The message I composed simply read, “This is a test of this illustrious email address.”
Within seconds, a return message appeared in my mailbox. It was the typical Gmail rejection. It read:
550 5.1.1 The email account that you tried to reach does not exist. Please try double-checking the recipient's email address for typos or unnecessary spaces. Learn more at https://support.google.com/mail/?p=NoSuchUser
Like the good tech that I am, I immediately followed the support URL to find out more about my email rejection. There was nothing new there. It explained, however, that a valid Gmail address needed to be at least six characters long. An interesting twist. Not only was ‘God’ an unknown Gmail address, it was also an invalid one, comprising only three characters. What was going on here?
I reviewed the forwarded email message from Sarah459:
Dear God,We really need your help this Christmas. My mom and dad are divorced, and I live with my mom and little brother Mike, and our dog Jesse. I guess you already know that. Jesse is very sick, and mom has told me that he might not live much longer. I’m brave enough to know but Mike isn’t. Mike can’t do regular kid things like me. I guess you know that too. He spends all day in his wheelchair, and can’t move or talk like a normal kid. The only time he smiles is when Jesse comes into the room and jumps up into his lap and licks his face. I’m afraid that if Jesse dies, Mike will become so sad that he might die too. Please God, can you keep Jesse from dying?Love Sarah
Maybe this email was some kind of well-crafted deception, designed to gain my trust. Maybe someone wanted me to reply, to see if there was a real person at the other end of their inquiry. Was this a new kind of hack? I’ve helped many of my remote clients through a lot of different hacking ploys, aimed at gaining their trust, before the perpetrator’s trap was sprung. Maybe this was just another one of those, a bit more creative, designed to throw my suspicious mind off-guard.
So, who was really behind these messages? Was Sarah459 really in trouble and needing some help? Why would her message get through to God@gmail.com but my simple test message did not? Now my mind was really spinning.
I envisioned a Gmail employee, somewhere deep inside the Google Complex, that had taken it upon himself to intercept messages from desperate individuals, addressed to God, and maybe all of his alternate identities such as Jesus, Allah, Vishnu, and a hundred other names of Diety known to man. Maybe this self-appointed angel-wanna-be injected some code into the Gmail system that automatically forwarded the messages to a predetermined list of recipients. But why was I on that mailing list?
Although my suspicious mind was thinking of all the reasons why I should delete this message like any other scam, there was a little seed growing in another part of my mind that reached back to the faithful actions of my mother when she sensed that someone was in trouble. I would watch her comfort a neighbor that was sad. I heard her speak encouraging words to my older sister. I felt her arm around my shoulder when my anxieties stretched out of my control.
What if God really was behind this message? Surely, the Creator of the Universe could do what my hypothetical Gmail employee was capable of doing. Being omniscient, God already knew that Sarah459 was going to email her cry for help. He could have automatically opened the Gmail gate, maybe with some Divine programming language, like parting the Red Sea, then forwarded her message for help to me, slamming the gate shut afterward, drowning the pursuing army of anti-hackers, rejecting my simpleton test message as quickly as I had sent it.
But was it just sent to me? Maybe there were millions of message recipients around the world, receiving forwarded cries for help from those geographically closest to the sender in trouble. Maybe there needed to be some redundancy in God’s email-angel army. After all, I didn’t do anything with the dozen or so earlier ones that I had received. Did those sender’s cries for help go unanswered because I didn’t overcome my hacker’s faithless doubts? I hope there were some backup messages, sent to others more believing.
That’s when I made what my cliche-filled mother called a ‘leap of faith’. I decided that I needed to exercise some of that faithful trait I learned from her in my early years. I needed to look past my lingering doubts and just believe that what was happening to me was real.
I re-read Sarah’s email with a new, more believing perspective. Nothing like any major miracles needed for her cry of help! Why couldn’t I start out my email-angel ministry with a problem that was a bit more straightforward, like a cat up in a tree? My first assignment from God and it required not only a degree in veterinary science but also a major detective effort to discover where Sarah and her family actually lived. Were they nearby, or on the other side of the planet? How old was Sarah, anyway? I suspected a teen. At least her email message was reasonably literate. But what did I know?
One of my many proclivities is to make lists of the things that I do know about a problem, then try to determine what I don’t know. It helps me to ease my growing anxiety, when the answers in my mind aren’t leading to the solution to my problem.
What did I know? (Or what seemed to be true?)
1. Sarah and Mike were children of divorced parents, names unknown.2. They owned a dog named Jesse. Breed unknown.3. Mike appeared to be seriously disabled, both intellectually and physically.4. The children lived with their mother.
What didn’t I know yet?
1. The family’s last name, and at least the mother’s name.2. Where they lived.3. Was Jesse really that sick? Was he still alive?4. What could I do about it, if anything?5. Were these people real? Or was it an elaborate hacking scheme?
As much as I would like to have believed, I just couldn’t completely get out of my mind the nagging feeling that I was falling for an elaborate phishing scheme. I guess that’s how faith is. Sometimes it wavers. I spend most of my days counseling my clients, cautioning them to not believe any of the outrageous claims that they find in email, nor to click on any link that promises the unrealistic. Yet, here I was, practically doing the same thing. Wait. That was it! There weren’t any suspicious links in this email from Sarah. If this was a phishing email, where was the trap?
Then I realized, maybe I could actually use phishing methods to capture some of the information from Sarah that I didn’t know. Now that was something. I have spent untold hours convincing others to not fall for suspicious emails, and here I was planning to send off my own phishing email, hoping that Sarah may answer some of my many questions.
And there was another troubling concern that had popped up in the back of my mind. What does it look like if someone discovers that an adult male, who lives alone, hides from normality, and keeps away from open spaces, was trying to extract location information from a teenage girl? Heck, what if Sarah was actually an undercover agent trying to catch such perpetrators?
But the growing feeling of my mother’s kind of faith was overcoming these doubts. I spent the next few minutes constructing an innocuous email, counting on a bit of Divine help, trying not to deceive or lie, because I was ‘phishing for God’.
Dear Sarah459@gmail.comI understand that you need some help this Christmas season. If that’s true, please click here.A distant friend
Near midday, as I reviewed my incoming inbox, a terse message showed up, revealing: 18.104.22.168, the public Internet address of their home router, no doubt. A quick ISP lookup revealed that this address was hosted by CentraCom in Fairview, Utah, population 1410, about 50 miles away. Now that I knew where Sarah459 was living, (if it really was her), the only way I could think of getting the information I needed was through a popular hacking technique called ‘social engineering’.
Social engineering refers to the hacking method of contacting someone who knows Sarah’s address and duping them into revealing the information through the right kind of questioning. I’ve hired myself out before as a white-hat hacker to perform this type of social engineering on a company’s employees to find out who and where their weaknesses are. Heck, I once pretended to be an IT security officer and talked an HR manager into giving me access to the company's payroll.
Here was my next list of reasoning about Sarah and her family:
1. Jesse has been very sick. Someone has told Sarah’s mother that he may soon die. That sounded like a veterinarian. My quick google search revealed that the closest one was probably at the Mt. Pleasant Animal Hospital, about 10 miles south of Fairview.2. If Jesse was taken there, the dog's veterinary records should contain adequate information to locate Jesse’s home.3. How could I get the hospital to reveal that information to me? Although HIPPA applied only to human medical records, most states had similar privacy laws for veterinary records.4. It would take some subtle social engineering to convince a hospital clerk to reveal such information.5. Maybe I could convince them that they were sending their records to the Nebo Animal Clinic in Spanish Fork, thirty miles north.6. This was going to take a carefully worded script to convince a records clerk or receptionist to email the records that contained my hidden address.7. Maybe I could also create a phishing email from the animal clinic to introduce me before I call them.
I was getting way outside my comfort zone, both for leveraging the hacking methods I’d tried so hard to resist, and for the moral ethics of this effort. Would God overlook my few white lies if it accomplished His will? I wasn’t sure. I had learned to keep my many anxieties under reasonable control. But right then they were starting to move outside reason.
After an hour of composition and practice on my approach, I was ready. My anxiousness was dropping. If I can email, or even talk to someone over the phone with a script of what I want to say, I can usually carry on a normal conversation. I wrote out my talking script, like a flowchart, which guided me in my remote dialogue. If I spent enough time in preparation and practice, I was convinced that someone on the other end of the phone call would do what I wanted.
I sent the phishing email to the Mt. Pleasant hospital’s address, which I found online, then gave them enough time to receive it and expect my call. With some special telephone technology, I masqueraded my phone number in the Caller-ID, so that the hospital would think that the call was coming from the animal clinic in Spanish Fork.
“Hello, Mt. Pleasant Animal Hospital? Could I speak to someone about some patient records for a dog that was recently brought in? I emailed you earlier to let you know I would be calling . . .”
# # #
It worked. Within 30 minutes, I was sitting at my desk, looking at a diagnostic photo of Jesse, an aging Jack Russell Terrier. Mr. Snoot eyed the photo of the dog suspiciously. In addition, I had the Fairview address of his owner, Margarie Evans, Sarah’s and Michael’s mother no doubt.
My head was spinning. Since early that morning, after I first received Sarah’s forwarded message from God, I had been transforming myself from a dedicated fighter against the dark-web hacking community, into my own flavor of a faithful hacker for Divinity, phishing for private info, convincing unsuspecting records-clerks to violate their company information-sharing policies. The only thing that was still keeping me going was this compelling feeling that I could somehow help Sarah with the big problem in her household: the loss of their beloved pet and the possibility that Michael would not survive that loss, a problem that she felt she could only ask God for help.
The evening of Christmas Eve was fast approaching, so where was I at?
Here was my last list:
1. I knew where Sarah lived, and that her challenges seemed to be genuine.2. Jesse was a Jack Russell Terrier, and according to the veterinarian’s diagnosis, he didn’t expect the dog to live much longer. The diagnosis information was a few weeks old. I suspected that his steep decline probably moved Sarah to pen an email to God on Christmas Eve.3. I couldn’t leave the house, let alone show up at their doorstep. What if Sarah’s mother reported me for stalking? What if she reported that a mentally ill stranger was on her porch?4. I knew what I couldn’t do. But I needed to come up with something that I could do. I couldn’t save Jesse from dying, he might already be dead. But I couldn’t passively ignore God’s forwarded email either.5. Maybe I could help from here, without revealing my identity. I was actually turning into that email-angel I jokingly called myself.
It didn’t take me long to google-search the available Jack Russell Terrier puppies in Utah and surrounding states. There weren’t many left; it's a pretty popular breed. In fact, I found a dog haven that I thought would actually work with me to pull this off on Christmas Morning. I called them right then, just before their holiday closing time, which was published on their website.
It was all set. Luckily, my PayPal account was flush with the recent rise in crypto price increases. That expedited vet service and special animal transportation tomorrow, on Christmas morning, cost me a fair amount of BitCoin, but I won’t miss it. They will deliver a three-month-old male, Jack Russell Terrier puppy, to Sarah’s house in the morning. And I thought of just the right delivery card, which I dictated to the manager as I was finishing up my electronic transaction:
Dear Sarah and family,
I hope you will love this new little dog, like you have loved your own dog Jesse for so many years. This dog is ready to take Jesse’s place as a prized addition to your family. His name is Jonathan. Like the name Jesse, it means “Gift from God.”
Merry Christmas,Your distant friend
It was getting late. I needed to get to bed. Mr. Snoot had already gone upstairs and crawled into his cat-cave hours ago. I switched off my monitor while thinking about that Christmas morning’s delivery to Sarah’s house. No doubt she would be excitedly explaining to her mother what she had done with her Gmail. I hadn’t left enough traces in my email messages or phone transactions to be tracked. It would become a family legend to them, perhaps a real Christmas miracle. When I was younger, my mother would spend a lot of hours baking pies and casseroles for needy neighbors, that I would then secretly deliver for her to their front porch. She would be proud of me for what I did today.
I turned off my office lights. I still hadn’t fully grasped why God had forwarded Sarah’s email to me. Why would He send it to someone so isolated, unable to leave my home, dealing with agoraphobia and all the other quirks in my life? Maybe anyone can give a gift—no matter what personal problems they face. Maybe Christmas isn’t such a bad time of the year, after all.
As I closed my office door, I heard Siri’s voice behind me exclaim:
“Gmail from God.”