Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

It's tempting to rely on online services like webmail and assume that they've got all of your backup needs covered. Unfortunately, they don't.

I have a Mac and use both Gmail and Yahoo! Last week, Yahoo! suddenly lost my entire inbox, about 18,000 messages. They could not recover them. How common is this? Shouldn't they have some responsibility? And more importantly, is there a backup for email like Yahoo! or Gmail?

While your exact scenario is infrequent, the results are all too common.

People rely too heavily on data stored "in the cloud" and, as a result, they are often at a loss when that same cloud somehow loses their data.

If your data is in only one place, it's not backed up.

And you do need to take responsibility for backing it up yourself.

Relying on the cloud

Cloud services are lucrative as they're easy to set up and easy to rely on. It's pretty reasonable to assume that service providers "do the right thing" and have appropriate security and backups in place to recover from assorted failures.

"... if your data is in only one place then it's not backed up."

In fact, I'd go so far as to guess that failures happen every day - you just don't experience any impact normally because all of the appropriate backup and recovery happens behind the scenes. Hiding those kinds of infrastructure details are part of what online services are also all about.

But failures can happen; accounts can be stolen; data can be lost.

If the service can't recover your data, then there is no other backup. Your data is gone.

Keeping data in only one place

I've said it before, if your data is in only one place, then it's not backed up.

That applies just as much to email as to anything else.

Online services count as "one place". You actually don't know how, how often, how well or even if they backup your data at all.

You also don't know if your data will be lost due to errors on the provider's part, your part, or due to the actions of some hacker. Even if the service does backup their servers, if you or a hacker posing as you explicitly deletes your data, it's very possible that the service will simply not support recovery from their backups. That's not what their backups are for.

Backing up your important data is your responsibility, regardless of where it's kept; online, on your computer, or anyplace else.

Shouldn't they have responsibility?

In a word, no.

Oh, sure, it'd be nice, but it's unrealistic to expect it for two reasons:

  • You need to take responsibility for backing up your important information yourself anyway for those cases where the fault was not that of the providers.

  • You probably agreed to some terms of service when you signed up that explicitly absolve them of any responsibility. If you didn't want to do that, you were free not to sign up and use the service.

Backing up webmail

By far, the best way to backup webmail is to configure a desktop email client like Outlook or Thunderbird or any of hundreds of others to download the email to your PC. Make sure to configure it to "leave mail on server" and you'll be able to continue to use webmail exactly as you have been.

This approach works very well for many email services including both Gmail and Hotmail - both have the ability to connect via a POP3 (or possibly IMAP) and download email directly from their servers.

Yahoo! is slightly more problematic. POP3 access is not enabled in Yahoo! mail unless you sign up for Yahoo! Mail Plus. Once you do that, the same techniques work: download to your PC and you have a backup. Update: check out How do I backup my Yahoo! Mail? for a technique using IMAP, which is available without signing up for Yahoo! Mail Plus.

In any case, a desktop email program using POP3 gives you an instant backup of your email.

In most cases, you'll need to separately backup your contacts. Periodically export the contents of your webmail's contacts or address book. Depending on the email service and the desktop email program you use, there may also be add-ons available to download contacts automatically.

Article C4834 - June 2, 2011 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

Bharat Bhardwaj
June 4, 2011 3:35 AM

I completely agree with each of your observations. Besides, relying on this golden piece of advice, I have backed up my data, not only on computers but even my mobile phones & much more. & needless to say, those backups have really come in very handy many, many times.

specifically with regard to backing up my email, I would like to share that, I use the cloud to backup the cloud, I.E. I have setup automatic backups of my gmail on yahoo. I have applied the gmail's filters to send each of the mails that come into my yahoo ID. With Yahoo, offering an unlimited space & a 20 MB file size per attachment, it is no more a challenge to replicate, a gmail to a yahoo. in addition to all the incoming mail, even my sent mails replicate on yahoo. So far, I am pretty pleased with the execution of the idea. though, I am not too sure if there maybe any ill-effects of the same. One of them being the rejection of of incoming mails by yahoo occasionally, for reasons unknown with cryptic explanations.

June 7, 2011 8:56 AM

This information was very helpful. It emphasizes the importance of having a backup.

June 7, 2011 10:22 AM

I have three Yahoo accounts. Two for e-mail and one for backup. All three contain my goodies but the backup is where I foward what I want to keep from the other two. Ok, my backup is still at the tender mercies of Yahoo but my thinking goes, if Yahoo messes up one, what are the odds the other two will go belly-up.
I don't know if that's logical, but it sounds good to me.

June 7, 2011 10:27 AM

Does AOL use POP3? Can I download all my mail from my 3 screen names with AOL? I still do not understand how to download it all at one time, to a DVD or external drive. HELP!

Mark J
June 7, 2011 1:01 PM

Not a bad idea, but why not back up to GMail or another email provider and have a bit more security, in case Yahoo itself has problems?

Mark J
June 7, 2011 1:19 PM

Hre are the AOL POP3 and SMTP settings:

I copied these directly from my AOL account

POP Setup Information
Email Address: {your_email}
POP Username: {your_email}
Incoming Mail Server:
Remember to check the option for leaving messages on the server
SMTP Outgoing Server Address:
Set the port to 587
SMTP Username: {your_email}
SMTP Password: same as used to login to Mail

June 8, 2011 12:15 AM

I back-up all my mail with Mailstore - - and store the history on a second computer and a removable hard drive. I use the free Portable Home Edition but there are a number of options available, plus a more powerful commercial version for business use. It's a lifesaver and has the best, and quickest, mail search facility I've ever encountered.

from Tokyo
June 10, 2011 5:58 AM

There is a very nice (and free!) tool called "POP Peeper" which can check and download all your online email accounts and store the messages on your computer. It can handle Yahoo accounts as well, plus many others.

June 10, 2011 8:33 AM

At home I use GMail web-mail on a Win 7 desktop with FireFox. Previously I relied on GMail's "offline" feature to have data backup but the the most recent FF v4 no longer supports "offline".

My solution is to enable IMAP in GMail and install Thunderbird configured for a GMail IMAP connection. This automatically maintains current GMail status and the TB data file is included in my local data backup.

I use web-mail because I use an iPad for traveling and then I do not have to be concerned with data sync between it and my desktop. I feel that IMAP on the iPad is too slow to use with the Wi-Fi or 3G connections normally available while traveling.

Ed Vance
June 13, 2011 7:31 PM

I use Mozilla ThunderBird to get my messages from my email account and have them deleted from the server.
After deleting my Trash and Compacting TB's message folder, every month or so, I use MozBackup to save my TB data to a External Hard Drive.
After Mozbackup gets done making the data file, I will then make a copy of that file on another External Hard Drive believing that all three won't fail me IF and WHEN ever I need the data restored.
Belt and Suspenders. ;-)
Every month or so I also use Acronis True Image to make a Back Up of my C: and D: hard drives in my Desktop computer to a External Hard Drive, and then copy the TI Back Up to the other External Hard Drive.
I also use MozBackup to back up my FireFox data.

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