How Does an IP Address Give Away Your Location?
While it's true that your IP address doesn't reveal your address or identity, it can reveal to someone what city or even general area you are in...within several miles in some instances. And it does it in an instant. (Remember—only people with some technical know-how can do that. The average person won't have a clue.)
That amazing technological feat is made possible by something called geolocation software. Like something from a movie, geolocation software first zeroes in on your country, and then your region, city, and often finally your ZIP code.
But what exactly is geolocation software, and does it work?
How they know where we are.
For the most part, anyone (an individual or business) can pay for geolocation services through a subscription service. There are also free geolocation services available, but the paid services tend to provide location services that are more accurate at zeroing in on a ZIP code level, for instance.
Geolocation services have access to a number of databases (different kinds) that give them the information needed to locate someone online through their IP address. A primary source for IP address data is the Regional Internet Registries. These are large, official organizations responsible for managing and distributing IP addresses in specific regions of the world. You can read more about RIRs here. The RIR for North America is called the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN).
That's just a start. To further zero in, geolocation services use other sources to try to find the location of your IP address. In the same way gold diggers mine for gold, geolocation services mine for data by digging for more information until they reach their objective...your neighborhood.
A service might probe data sources where your IP address has shown up before. For example, if you went to an online weather site and typed in your city or ZIP code, that information was linked to your IP address because you made the request online in real time. (That's why you get such instant and accurate weather data with a simple query.)
Some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) also may contribute information to databases that is helpful to geolocation services. The services might use statistical formulas and other sophisticated analytical tools and analyze the data submitted by us in our specific online activities. This helps them fine-tune their search and improve their service to subscribers.
Here's how IP2Location, a geolocation provider, describes its product in a sales pitch:
"IP2LocationTM is a non-intrusive geo IP solution to help you to identify [a] visitor's geographical location, i.e.[,] country, region, city, latitude, longitude, ZIP code, time zone, connection speed, ISP, domain name, IDD country code, area code, weather station code and name, mobile carrier, elevation and usage type information using a proprietary IP address lookup database and technology without invading the Internet user's privacy. The solution is available as [a] database, programming API and hosted solution. Request your free copy of the demo database today."
Geolocation services weren't and aren't designed to be harmful. In fact, in many ways they're highly beneficial for many of the industries and organizations that use them. The services are used in legitimate and important business practices in a variety of industries, including banking, telecommunications, travel, hospitality, entertainment and law enforcement. Banks themselves prevent "phishing" attacks, money laundering and other security breaches by determining the user's location as part of the authentication process.
Law enforcement will use the service to track online financial transactions to prevent money laundering. Investigative agencies will use geolocation to monitor online trafficking with suspected terrorist organizations, or online trading with banned nations. Geolocation services protect banks from transferring funds for illicit purposes.
IP address geolocation is also used in online fraud detection. Companies that sell merchandise online, credit card providers, and companies that handle online payments use geolocation to prevent fraudulent transactions. Here's how:
A customer puts in an order for valuable items. As the transaction is being processed, a company will compare the billing address, where the merchandise is to be sent, to the location of the IP address of the online customer. If a geolocation service reveals the online shopper is somewhere in China, but their shipment is going to a ZIP code in Charlotte, North Carolina, that could signal a fraudulent transaction—the shipment address might be a drop point for illegal activity. (At that point, the company would request more information to complete the transaction.)
Geolocation on your side.
If you visit the Trace Email page on our website, you can learn how to extract someone's IP address from their email to you. You can then use our Trace Email Analyzer to find the location of the person.
Why bother? Well, if an email from cousin Bernie says he's trapped overseas and needs money for a plane ticket back to the U.S., but his IP address reveals that he's really in Florida, there's a good chance it's not Bernie sending you the message. And you won't be out $1,000.