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Lesson from misfires: Check twice before you click 'send'

It's a mistake we've all made. Acting in haste, we've inadvertently sent an email to the wrong person.

Most of the time, it's a harmless offense.

But a recent spate of mega misfires highlights the danger of haphazardly sending messages without double-checking the most rudimentary information -- such as whose name is in the To line.

Aviva PLC, Britain's second-largest insurance company, has been in the news after a widely reported email snafu. It gave everyone at its asset-management unit a jolt this month when it sent all 1,300 employees worldwide an email intended for one unlucky soul who had been let go.

The email told recipients to turn over company property and reminded them to keep their mouths shut about confidential information once they were gone.

For a moment, the entire staff of Aviva Investors thought that they had somehow missed the first memo.

The company quickly retracted the message, blaming a clerical error. "From time to time, things go wrong," a spokesman was quoted as saying.

The story was perversely amusing and made headlines around the world.

It reminded me of a favorite childhood joke: A telegram is delivered to an old lady who begs for the delivery guy at her door to sing her the message, saying she's never gotten a singing telegram. After much prodding, he caves in and warbles: "Boom, boom, boom, boom, your sister Rose is dead."

On another level, I was outraged that any company would fire by email.

Turns out it didn't. The staffer had already been laid off, and the message was a follow-up about what came next.

But the damage to Aviva's image is done -- all because somebody didn't take proper care before clicking send.

Aviva isn't alone in its public humiliation.

This is the season for acceptances at colleges and universities. A number of them have sent emails to the wrong recipients or revealed confidential student information that violates privacy laws.

Earlier this month, 400 prospective law students at Baylor University got an email giving them more time to pay their deposits. An attachment listed all of the incoming students' GPAs, LSAT scores, scholarship amounts and admissions rank.

Virginia Military Institute accidentally released the grade-point averages of its entire graduating class in a similar mishap.

And two weeks ago, UCLA congratulated nearly 900 wait-listed applicants on getting accepted to the highly competitive school -- only they hadn't been.

The search function has made us all more vulnerable to sending emails to the wrong person. You type in Greg, meaning to send it to Gregg Jones but select Greg King, the name below it.

"That's particularly bad when somebody's sending a letter of application or forwarding their interview materials, and they send that to a co-worker," says executive coach Karyl Innis, chief executive of the Innis Co. "I can't tell you how often that happens."

I'm guilty of auto-fill faux pas, too.

A colleague at The Dallas Morning News recently asked me for the email address of a local PR person.

In my response, I warned him of problems I'd had with her.

I put her name in the copy line so I could get her address for him, then forgot to delete it before I hit send.

Michael Boone, principal with Haynes and Boone LLP, says such a mix-up can be more than just embarrassing. You could find yourself in a legal mess.

"If you say in an email Joe Smith is having an affair with his secretary, and you accidentally send it to Joe Smith, I'm telling you, you're going to pay a price for that."

Boone has a habit that acts as a safeguard. "I like to copy myself on emails -- not a blind copy, a real one. That way I have a record of exactly what I sent. Plus, if they forward it or respond to a bunch of people, I'm likely to get copied too, so I can see what they're doing or where they're headed."

Mobile devices have increased the potential for misfires, says Peter Vogel, a partner with Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP. "You're at a stoplight, you have 30 seconds to send your daughter an email -- only it isn't your daughter who you send it to."

His recommendation: "It's real simple. Assume that whoever you're writing about in an email is eventually going to see it. I don't send nasty things."