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I strongly advise against putting all your eggs in the free email basket. Why?

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This is Leo Notenboom for askleo.net.

I received a comment this week regarding my position on webmail, or more correctly, free email services. To summarize, I strongly recommend against using free email services as your only repository for anything you consider to be important.

To paraphrase the objection to fit here, spam filters appear to be better on the web services than those you might get with a more traditional email client.

And I won't argue the point. Some spam filters are much better than others. Gmail's appears to be particularly good these days. So good that I know of several folks who actually automatically forward their primary email address through a Gmail account, which then forwards to another POP account for download simply to take advantage of Gmail's spam filter.

But notice what they're not doing: they're not receiving email in Gmail, and they're not leaving it only in Gmail. And that is my objection, my concern, and the reason I take the position I do.

Free email accounts are wonderful if they're used properly. The problem is that a significant number of people don't use them properly. And if you don't believe me, all I can say is that it's been one of the most common themes I've seen in over 4 years of doing Ask Leo! - people suddenly lose access to, or the contents of, their free email account - and most of the time they're totally screwed. They have no recourse, no way to recover their account or data.

I see it almost every day.

That's why I caution against free email accounts.

And to be clear, I'm not saying don't use them. Use them properly. Don't use them as the only place you keep important emails, contact information, or as one person did, his university thesis.

Use a real POP3 email account. Use one of the approaches to accessing your free email account using a PC-based client so you can back your data up. Heck, use two free email accounts and auto-forward one to the other for safe-keeping. That last one won't backup your address book, drafts or sent mail, but I suppose it's better than nothing.

But I stand by my position: if you're using a free email account, any free email account, as the only place you're keeping important correspondence and other data, you're asking for trouble.

I hear from a lot of people that have learned this lesson the hard way.

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit askleo.net and enter 12180 in the go to article number box to access the show notes, the transcript and to leave me a comment. While you're there, browse the hundreds of technical questions and answers on the site.

Till next time, I'm Leo Notenboom, for askleo.net.

Article C3272 - January 19, 2008 « »

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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.

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8 Comments
Greg Bulmash
January 19, 2008 5:11 PM

You don't have to forward to GMail and then have the mail forwarded from GMail to another POP account. GMail will download your mail from other POP accounts and then let you download that mail from GMail via POP.

But what's fun is that I have Spam Assassin on one of the accounts I let GMail download from. GMail's spam filters sometimes let through e-mails that Spam Assassin correctly identified as spam. I finally ended up having to create a rule in GMail to have it pay attention to Spam Assassin's markings.

When I combine the two, I get pretty good protection.

Mark
January 20, 2008 8:02 PM

I've said it before on pages like this, and I will say it again. Gmail seems to be alone on this front, but just use the pop3 settings to download it to your main machine once in a while. It keeps the simplicity of web based mail and not having to master another mail program, but when you eventually lose Gmail access, you still have the important things. Again, how often you do the back up depends on how much you have to lose. I think I'm starting to channel Leo here...

Ben
January 22, 2008 9:01 AM

Sorry, but I'm still absolutely clueless when it comes to emails. I've read things about email client, email server, mail user agent, mail transfer agent, mail delivery agent, POP, SMTP, web based, etc. etc. and my head begins to throb with an intense pain.

My ISP charges me money each month so I can connect to the internet and also provides me with (according to them) "10 free email accounts" at sbcglobal.net. Do I need to be concerned about these free email accounts like I'm supposed to be concerned with Yahoo, Gmail, etc? Seems to me if my ISP goes belly up for some reason I still lose my emails.

Is something like Thunderbird web based? (I have to go on the web to download a program from them.) And do they give me an email address like "myname-at-thunderbird.com? Or do I log in to Thunderbird to read my Gmail that gets forwarded to Thunderbird... instead of just logging in to Gmail to read it direct? And if Gmail goes belly up for some reason, what good is Thunderbird if it doesn't provide email addresses or email service?

I apologize for my confusion. But when I need to save an important email I create a Word document and save it. What are the pros and cons saving to Word vs. POP3? And who (or what) are the POP3 providers? Gotta go. My Extra Strength Tylenol beckons.

Roger Johnson
January 26, 2008 8:12 AM

A few months ago I took your advice, subscribed to Carbonite. It feels good to know that people who know what they are doing are taking care of my information; I was not good at doing that, won't be, had lost a lot of stuff previously. And all of this for less than $50/yr. Thanks for the advice.

Keith Harragan
January 26, 2008 8:36 AM

Leo, I'm surprised you don't mention Yahoo mail. First, it's free. Second, it is POP enabled so you can manage your email on your PC so all your mail, contacts etc are on your machine, and lastly I have found its spam filter to be very effective.

Eli Coten
January 26, 2008 12:13 PM

Yahoo UK have enabled POP & SMTP access but I'm not sure about Yahoo in other countries.

GMail have always allowed POP & SMTP access, and now they also allow IMAP. Bear in mind that many IMAP clients do not backup your email, they simply leave it on the server so if you are using Imap just double check whether or not your email program actually downloads the messages to keep them, or only downloads the ones you read as you read them.

POP3 accounts are quite good as backups for your email, assuming you're actually using POP to download your email. Also keep your address book in your desktop email program and then you're probably quite safe. Of course your own computer hard drive could go and but then you will still have the email backup on the server.

Chris Bobbitt
January 28, 2008 7:01 AM

Agree with your article on FREE webmail and the need to save important info. Simple solution is to get the POP and SMTP settings and set up a PC client, like you mention. I use Gmail and I set up Outlook Express to download and send email. My mail is still going thru Gmail but I am downloading and sending it from Outlook Express and I can save my email, contact list, etc...You don't need to use a rule to forward email from one service to another. I got tired of everytime I changed a service provider I had to get a new email account so I went to webmail instead just to keep the same address.

Melissa
January 30, 2008 10:23 PM

I agree with Chris Bobbitt. One of the best reasons for getting a free email account like Gmail is because ISPs these days are becoming more competitive and available in more places. More people are changing ISPs more frequently which makes them have to change their email address. I work with lots of senior citizens who travel or have a summer and winter home. They have to have different ISPs and it drives them and all their elderly friends mad having to switch email accounts all the time. (It's very easy for them to become confused and extremely frustrated.) Now that Gmail offers POP and IMAP and they can use a mail client like Apple Mail.app or even Thunderbird, I am steering them all in this direction. Hooray! Of course, I heed everything you mentioned about about the importance of backing up etc. I am also advising them to learn how to use a simple backup solution to an external drive. Plus, I wouldn't advise this approach necessarily for businesses. I'm talking about basic consumers with basic needs.

I am personally against webmail as in using it to read your email. A client is much better for that especially for older people because you can totally customize the settings for users with poor vision to enlarge font size and color, etc. I am totally for free webmail accounts though and taking advantage of the free services they offer even if it means putting up with ads on webpages. Marketing makes the world go round. Use a mail client and be done with it. Plus, many older people travel in their golden years and have an increasing need to keep in touch with loved ones on the go. Social networking along with free accounts like Gmail and all the other apps Google provides are a Godsend to people like them and me. You can check your email on your personal machine in comfort yet put up with the webmail interface when needed on the go and with IMAP, it's synced.

I can't tell you how many people I consult who just want to tear their blue hair out because they get so frustrated with the lack of support from their ISP. They are much happier if they can just pay the bill for the juice but have more freedom over how they read their email and see pictures of the grandchildren.

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