…or, Why You Should Never Auto-Forward Email


A few months ago I found out that my longtime web host - Webfaction - had been gobbled up by the GoDaddy monster. The service is going to be subsumed and shutdown, apparently at some point late this summer. I wasn’t particularly interested in using GoDaddy, so I set out to find a new home for all my websites. I settled on Netlify, which is such a fantastic service that I’m actually grateful Webfaction is shutting down because it forced me to find something even better. The only problem was that Netlify doesn’t support any kind of email forwarding. This is something I really needed because my wife and I have a ton of vanity email addresses that forward to one or more of our primary mail accounts. Eventually I found Forward MX, which purportedly did exactly what I wanted. The tagline on their website says “Premium Email Forwarding. Fast & Simple.” Great, I thought, sign me up!

Unreliable, No Support

I used to pay Webfaction $9 a month, totaling $108 a year. Netlify, on the other hand, is completely free for my usage requirements. Since I was already looking at an overall savings by switching to Netlify, I wasn’t too terribly concerned when I saw that Forward MX was a paid service. Honestly, I like supporting indie software, so $29 a year for up to 25 domains with unlimited aliases and unlimited redirects seemed pretty reasonable. They also have a cheaper plan that’s $9 per year and a more expensive “enterprise” one for $99 a year. The former offered too few domains for my needs and the latter was too much, so I stuck with the Goldilocks plan. Signing up was easy. Add your domains, create your aliases and forwarding rules, update your domains' MX records, and you’re done.

I signed up with Forward MX in early March. And for the first two months, as far as I could tell, it worked just fine. But then one Sunday afternoon in late May I needed to create a new alias on an existing domain (meaning: the MX records had long since been in place) and noticed it didn’t work. Forward MX’s “new alias” page warns that it “can take up to a minute until the forwarder works”, but I waited far beyond that and messages simply never arrived. Concerned, I sent test messages to three different email aliases hosted on Forward MX, each using a different domain. None came through, even hours later. Finally, I emailed the company requesting support because clearly something was broken.

That was nearly two weeks ago. I never heard back.

Next stop: Mailgun

How long was Forward MX not working? How many emails did I lose? I’ll never know. In retrospect, I should have heeded the negative reports I found online of similar experiences. Regardless, after 24 hours passed without a response to my support request, I started hunting for another alternative and landed on Mailgun. Mailgun is vastly superior to Forward MX. Right off the bat, it’s free if you don’t need more than 10,000 messages per month, which is plenty for my purposes. But it offers so much more, and I’m barely scratching the surface:

  • It has detailed logs, which is super helpful for troubleshooting why an email didn’t get through. Some might squawk about privacy concerns here, but I personally don’t use any of my vanity addresses for sensitive communications. That’s what Signal and Protonmail are for. :)
  • It shows you the number of emails forwarded, in total and by domain, including a daily breakdown.
  • Email forwarding rules can use regex expressions!
  • Mailgun an actual business not some dude’s side project, giving me a lot more confidence that they know what they’re doing and their infrastructure is reliable.
  • They have a bona fide support site and a status page, rather than just a single email address like Forward MX.

Unfortunately, within a week of switching to Mailgun I could see in the logs that emails were regularly being dropped. The most common failure was 602: Too old which occurs after multiple failed attempts to deliver a message. But what was the underlying cause? Why couldn’t Mailgun deliver the messages? I’m now convinced that email forwarding itself was the problem. According to this article, “When there are many spam emails received at the forwarding email address the remote mail server will reject all emails thinking [the] mail server is sending spam emails…Eventually it can get blacklisted as well and legitimate emails from the mail server will also get blocked.” That article was written in 2011 and at first I wasn’t sure whether the information was current. Then I found another article from 2018 and became convinced that blacklisting was truly the crux of the matter. Makes me wonder how many messages I didn’t get over the years.

Cutting My Losses

I no longer use any sort of email forwarding. It’s a shame, because it was super convenient having a single email address that would fire off duplicate messages, one for me and another for my wife. No longer able to do that, I opened a FastMail account for our shared addresses. I use FastMail’s clients directly; she uses Gmail to fetch the messages via POP. So far, that’s worked out pretty well. While I still prefer Protonmail, its encrypted messaging makes POP impossible. And honestly, I really can’t complain about FastMail. It’s pretty nice. And true to its name, it’s definitely fast.