That’s a question I recently got on my Facebook page. I responded with an answer, which I’ll include below.
However I often have to remind myself that while answering a specific question is great, understanding the reasons behind the question can often be even more helpful.
For example, I should have asked: why do you want to close the account?
What closing will almost always NOT do
I get questions about closing accounts all the time. I have instructions for a couple of popular services that I can point people to when it’s one of those services they’re asking about.
The problem is that closing the account is often not what they really want.
What they want is that a bounce message would be sent to people emailing the closed account. They’re looking for something that says “this account is closed” or “this account does not exist” or anything that would somehow indicate that the account is no longer in use, and to please stop emailing it.
I hate to break it to you, but closing the account may not make that happen.
Closing an email account will, in many cases, not cause email sent to that account to bounce.
These aren’t the bounces you’re looking for
I have a few reasons why it might not happen, but the reasons don’t matter. The fact is that the bounce you’re looking for may not happen. It’s not in your control – at all. Particularly, when you close an account, you are giving up any and all ownership or control over what happens to it next.
However, many folks just can’t get past this point without an answer to “why”, so here are some ideas:
Some services don’t close the account immediately. They put it into what might be best called a “suspended” state for a period of time. Why? (There’s that question again.) Because people change their minds. “How do I get back this account I closed?” is a common enough question for some email services to prepare for it. So they establish a “grace period” during which you can reclaim your closed account by simply logging in again.
The email address might be quickly reassigned to another user. When you close an email account you’re saying that the email address isn’t you any more. The service is then completely free to make it available to someone else to open a new account. Most don’t do this immediately, but there are no rules at all that say that they can’t. You could find that the email address of your old, closed account is now someone else’s new email address. Since it’s a valid email address, albeit assigned to someone else, email sent to it won’t bounce, and will in fact be available to this new owner.
It might generate too much outgoing mail. If your account was getting a lot of mail (possibly including spam), then bouncing on every message, even with some throttling, could simply generate too much outgoing mail for the email service. Even if the service has the physical capacity to send the bounce messages, the impact of sending lots of bounce messages could negatively impact the company’s reputation relating to spam. So they may simply choose not to do it.
There might be policy or other reasons. The ISP could simply have seemingly arbitrary reasons based on things as varied as backup procedures, legal requirements, or perhaps even manual intervention that simply take “a while”.
The message that I’m trying to get across is simple: closing an account may not cause bounces to be generated, and there are many reasons why that might be the case.
Roll your own bounce
My recommended approach is a simple one:
Set up an “out of office” or “vacation auto responder” on the account that replies with a message saying “this account is no longer checked”, or something similar. It’s like creating your own bounce message.
Then I’d go further and say ignore the account forevermore. As long as you don’t log in, then eventually it’ll be closed as abandoned. This typically takes several months.
On the other hand, if you don’t want someone to potentially be assigned your old email address, the only answer there is to keep it – by logging in every so often. You can ignore the mail there, but you’ll want to log in from time to time to make sure it’s not closed and taken from you.
Bouncing the unbounceable
If your email service has no “out of office” or similar feature, then this becomes a slightly different process:
- Create an new email account at a service that does do out-of-office notifications. (Gmail is one.)
- Forward your old account to that new account, or have that new account automatically fetch email from the old one using POP3 services, if available.
- Configure that new account to send the bounce message.
The good news is that regardless of which of these approaches you use, the results are in your control. You control the message sent to people.
And of course, by leaving the account open, you’re prepared should you ever realize that closing it would have been a mistake for some other reason.
Keeping the emails from a closed account
To answer the question asked: yes, it’s actually pretty easy to keep emails from an account you plan to close or abandon. Either:
- Install a desktop email program like Thunderbird, and download all the email.
- Have another online email account use remote POP3 access to fetch all the email from the old account you plan to leave behind.
You’ll probably also want to export and save the contacts as well.