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What Does It Mean that Yahoo! Is Releasing Email Addresses?

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Yahoo! announced that they were releasing email addresses that hadn’t been used in a year. Does that mean I’m going to lose my Yahoo! email address? Why are they doing this anyway?

As long as you’ve logged in to your Yahoo! account recently, you don’t need to worry about losing your Yahoo! email address. If you’re not certain, go log into it now, and you can “reset the clock,” so to speak.

I’m somewhat surprised that Yahoo! felt the need to make an announcement at all. I’m also surprised that some people are upset by this plan.

It’s something that many providers have been doing all along.

And it’s something that you should understand, even if you’ve never touched a Yahoo! account.

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The lifespan of a free email account

The best way to envision this is to look at the various steps an email account might go through:

  • The email account is created.
  • It’s used for some period of time.
  • It stops being used. Quite literally, the account owner stops logging into it.

It’s at this point – when the account is no longer actively being used – that the free email providers begin to take action.

  • After being completely unused for some period of time1, the account contents are removed. All email, contacts, and whatnot are deleted irrecoverably, and new messages destined for the account are discarded or rejected.
  • After continuing to be completely unused for more time, the account is closed. This means that the account owner can no longer login to the account – because it’s no longer his.
  • After some additional time, the account ID – typically the email address – is recycled and made available for re-use. This means that someone else could come along and open a new account, completely unrelated to the original, that uses the same email address as that original – because that original no longer exists.

It’s this last step that Yahoo! has announced as happening en masse beginning in July of this year for accounts which have not been accessed in over a year.

Account recycling is nothing new

Yahoo! MailThat Yahoo! felt the need to announce this publicly makes me believe that account recycling was not already part of their standard operation.

That’s not necessarily true for other free email providers.

My understanding is that this has been standard practice for years for most of the major free email services. If you fail to login to your free account for some period of time, you will lose it and everything in it and someone else could create a new one taking your old email address.

Keeping your email account and address

If you want to make sure you don’t lose your email address to recycling, the solution is trivially simple.

Log in.

Every so often (I’d say once every month or so), use the service’s web interface to login to your free email account. That alone is enough to tell the service that you’re not abandoning the account and that it should not be released or recycled.2

And yes, I’ve heard from individuals who were surprised to have lost their accounts after not logging in for several years. Sorry, but that’s just asking for trouble. If the account or email address is important at all, then take the time to login every so often.

Accounts you might forget

With the added features of some email accounts, it turns out that it’s not that far-fetched to set up an account that you actually rely on and use it daily without actually ever logging in. As we’ve seen, that is a recipe for account loss.

  • Forwarding accounts: If you’ve set up a free email account and have it automatically forwarded to another email account,  you really no longer need to login to that first account to use its email address. You can do everything you need via the account to which you have your email forwarded. Nonetheless, you should make sure to login to that first account every so often anyway, just to keep the account.
  • POP3/IMAP: This shouldn’t be a problem. Using POP3 or IMAP to download your email from a free email account to your PC’s email program means that you never need to login to the service’s web interface. Logging in via POP3 or IMAP like this should indicate that the account is active. But if the account is important, I’d still take the extra step of logging in to the web interface every so often.

The concern about recycling

The concerns that I’ve heard raised about proactively recycling email addresses typically revolve around phishing or other forms of scams. The scenario, as best I can piece it together, looks like this:

  • You have an email address that you use with online businesses or friends or family.
  • You abandon that email address, intentionally or otherwise, by not logging into it for a long time.
  • The email address is recycled, and someone else claims it.
  • They do not have access to any of your stored email or contacts – that was all deleted before the account was recycled.
  • On the other hand, if they knew or found out that you had used this email address with an online shopping account, they could request a password reset and gain control of that account and any information therein.
  • They could fool your prior contacts into thinking they were you. But because they don’t have your contacts, they’d have to use some other technique to find them or otherwise leverage this.

Why is Yahoo! doing this?

In a word, competition.

The free email service arena is a highly competitive one and Yahoo! has been falling behind.

By recycling email accounts that have laid dormant for years, it’s possible that some of the “cooler” and simpler email addresses might become available and draw people looking for those email addresses to Yahoo! to get them.

Email addresses are valuable

For a variety of reasons, email addresses are valuable and abandoning one should never be done lightly.

Email addresses are often the primary means of identification for a variety of online services. Email addresses are often the way that people know to contact you and know that you are contacting them.

While so-called “throw-away” email addresses absolutely have a place, particularly when it comes to reducing the amount of spam that we might get, such addresses are intentionally created and discarded. Anything not intended to be a throw-away account needs to be maintained.

Even if all that means is logging in every so often.

Footnotes & references

1: I’m being intentionally vague on timeframes here. The problem is that the amount of time it takes for an account to be considered abandoned will vary from one service to the next, and in fact may very well change over time.

2: As it turns out logging in with your Yahoo! ID to any Yahoo! service, such as Flickr, or Yahoo! Groups, should be enough to keep it alive. It doesn’t have to be email. This may, or may not, apply to other email providers, however.

31 comments on “What Does It Mean that Yahoo! Is Releasing Email Addresses?”

  1. What about alias’s? I have two addresses for the same account. One is short and easy to type, the other one not so much.

    • Alias email ADDRESSES attached to an email ACCOUNT are all part of the SAME account and therefore count as activity on the account.

  2. Please be carefull when receiving ANY email from your isp, email provider, etc.
    Most of the warnings I get are spam. Which means clicking on links will be lethal.

  3. The shorter, cooler email addresses aren’t that desirable in my opinion. I was an early adopter of gmail (back when it was invite only) and have a 7-digit, easy to remember and somewhat popular email address (contains my name and a 3 easy to remember characters). I frequently get signed up on websites that I’ve never been too or get email from someone who meant to email the @aol or @yahoo equivalent.

    For a real, true life shock at how bad a popular free account can be…see what happened to Mat Honan, senior writer at Wired.com. He was hacked, in epic proportion, simply for “a grab for my three-character Twitter handle”…a fact the hacker told him afterward. It’s an amazing story (both the “hack” and the fact that he was able to learn from the hacker afterward) that will absolutely rock you to your core if you’ve never explored how easy it can be for hacking to occur….the hackers weren’t even using code to destroy Mat’s digital life…simply exploited a hole that Mat had to diligently work to fill so millions of others couldn’t be exploited similarly.

    http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2012/08/apple-amazon-mat-honan-hacking/all/

    It’s a LONG read but WELL worth it!

      • Right you are Mark. In fact, it’s probably Leo’s article that pointed me to the Mat Honan story to begin with. I try to promote it often because it’s such a good example of how hacking really works. It’s not always some tech geek hammering away at computer code, just someone who found a hole in someone else’s logic (in this case, Apple’s and Amazon’s). Truly jaw-dropping.

  4. Here’s the first paragraph to the link I posted above…keep in mind, this guy is a tech geek who writes about tech gadgets…and he was OWNED (aka pwned) by this hacker…

    “In the space of one hour, my entire digital life was destroyed. First my Google account was taken over, then deleted. Next my Twitter account was compromised, and used as a platform to broadcast racist and homophobic messages. And worst of all, my AppleID account was broken into, and my hackers used it to remotely erase all of the data on my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook.”

    Educate yourself so this doesn’t happen to you.

  5. Because I use Thunderbird to login to my accounts, I supposed it would keep them alive. Because you made me uncertain about that, I clicked on the link to the glossary on POP3 saying ‘continue reading’. The status bar giving the address ‘go.ask-leo.com/true’, but it brought me to ‘http://www.thisistrue.com/’ being some very nasty add and no glossary at all. Where is the mistake?

  6. I have used Yahoo! and GMail for quite some time now. I have set up reminders to log in once a month, which keeps them active.

  7. My father’s hotmail account that he only used when he was on cruises was apparently recycled. However, he was able to access the account after requesting a reset of the password and found not only all his information there but also the information of the new person with the account. He deleted all of that person’s stuff and reclaimed his account. How would you like to get an email account only to find later that at one time the address belonged to someone else and that they could still gain access and delete all your stuff?

    • Deb,
      Makes me wonder if perhaps his account was hacked and not recycled. Maybe he was able to retrieve it back from the hacker. Otherwise that’s a pretty scary scenario you are describing!

    • That account wasn’t “recycled”. An account recycled by the provider would be completely empty and have NO information from the previous user. It’s much more likely that his account was simply hacked, particularly since he was able to perform a password reset.

  8. Even though I dont use my yahoo account any more to email anybody, I have a couple of newsletters going to that account just to keep it active. I check the newsletters now & then. That way they wont close the account, I guess.

  9. Back in the late ’90s, Hotmail used to inactivate email accounts that weren’t used for 30 days. I think Yahoo was 3 months. They all had such a small limit on capacity. I was running a website that got a lot of email, and I had to open a new account every 2 or 3 months. (Ok, I’m a hoarder 🙂 After a few years of that, it became a job just to keep accounts open, and they were all deactivated. For both Hotmail and Yahoo mail, the accounts were emptied of everything, and if the name wasn’t already used again, I could get it back. I tried this with a few accounts, but there was no point. Luckily, none of them were tied to any important uses. I have some Yahoo accounts that weren’t used in a year, and the same thing happens. They empty them, but allow you to reclaim it. Not sure of the time frame for that. It happens all the time, and I, too, am surprised that Yahoo is making a big deal of this. Thanks for the article!

  10. I understand Gmail has a policy of never ever allowing an email address to be reused, even though they might close your account after a period of inactivity. No chance of anyone using a Gmail account you previously had.

  11. A blind user with a Yahoo! account panicked recently when it heard of this.

    Unfortunately, this user finds Yahoo! to be “blind hostile”. The technology does not work well with screen readers and the promised phone line does not respond.

    In the event, the user may not have needed to panic. It was more to do with logging into Yahoo! than using an email address on that system.

  12. Does anyone know what email domains this is being applied on? Is it just yahoo.com? Or is it worldwide country extensions as well?

    • Nick,
      We should assume that any free email provider could be doing this. When you think about it there must be millions of abandoned email accounts. I manage a server with websites from all my web design clients. It’s amazing to me how many people stop using an account because it gets so full of spam, and then they never tell me about it. The account just sits there filling up the server with spam. Multiply that by millions and you can see what free email providers are dealing with.

      The best way to have control over an email is to own your own domain – and then actually manage that as well! Here’s a great article from Leo on that. Half way down read “Your own domain: the ultimate answer”.
      The link: http://askleo.com/how_do_i_change_my_email_address/

  13. They’ve gone a bit further now. This afternoon Yahoo sent a notice telling me they went into my contacts list and cleaned out yahoo email addresses they knew were no longer in use for my friends or family.

    Here’s the message:

    An update was made to your Mail account
    Dear xxxxxxxx,

    As part of our continuing effort to provide you with a wonderful Yahoo! Mail experience, we want to make sure the mail you send gets to the friends, family or other contacts you are trying to reach. In support of this commitment, we have removed Yahoo! email addresses from your address book that are no longer valid. All other information remains part of your address book.

    Plus, it’s simple to import contacts from Gmail or Facebook in two easy steps. Get started now.

    The following email addresses have been removed:
    xxxxxxxx@yahoo.com
    xxxxxxxx@yahoo.com

    • It might be unsettling to receive a message like that, but if these addresses are no longer in use, and may be given to another person, Yahoo is preventing you from sending an email to the new owner of that account through their servers. I agree, it is pretty creepy, but on the other hand, what they are doing is all on their server and probably falls withing the things you agreed to when you clicked OK to the terms of service.
      Another reason to get your own domain with an associated email address. Are free email services worth it?

      • Thanks Mark. I can see your point about them protecting me from inadvertently emailing the new owner of an old email address.

        Certainly felt strange though to think someone else is going into my contacts list to remove stuff.

  14. Leo
    My e-mail address is from the UK and was offered by BT as free for life. Unfortunately (for me) they have just announced that they are closing the talk21.com e-mail addresses on September 16 for non BT customers. The talk21 service is actually accessed through yahoo mail. There is an option to sign up with their broadband service or another service with them. As I now live in Chicago that is not feasable. the other option is I can pay about $2.50 a month to keep the account going by direct debit. the problem with that is I am i the USA now and they won’t accept my US bank details. So now I have an e-mail address I have used for 14 years that is going to disappear in one month. When I received the e-mail telling me I thought it was a scam. I may not have the option of paying for their service to keep my e-mail address. It is gtoing to be a mammoth task to remember all the sites I have subscribed to, all the bills I pay online and sites I have subscribed to. Is there a way to transfer my files to a new e-mail address so I don’t lose all my archived e-mails.

    • You can archive your emails by accessing them through an email program like Thunderbird.
      How do I backup my Yahoo! Mail? The settings will be different, but most email programs support IMAP or POP3. If BT only allows POP3, it’s probably best to set the program to lead a copy of the email on the server so that it’s not lost from the server. As for keeping your BT account open, do you have a friend in England that you can have send the payment for your account?

    • I have gone virtually the same route as you and paid for a Yahoo Mail Plus Account but found that BT have seized on all the emails that are named @talk21.com, @btinternet.com etc and have started charging me billing too; such that (I am both a customer of both without making a specific agreement to pay twice) This BT behaviour is very unorthodox. I also suspect that they have released the domain name addresses to new users because I now get other people’s email boxes too. The “to” box corresponds correctly with my email name and that with the same name. I used to log in on a BTYahoo or Yahoo server and always the mail was ok. Now they are migrating and separting from the partnership I have to log onto a BT landing page.

  15. While I don’t see anything bad about recycling addresses I think they should have at least a year or two before someone else can register it…

  16. I don’t and never have had a Yahoo account, but I’m getting tons of spam as well as calls from family and friends. Why am I getting email through Yahoo-dom anyway? I’ve received several requests from angry strangers asking me to quit sending them email (which I haven’t sent) What is going on? What do I do about it?

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