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Don't Become An E-Mail Orphan

June 8, 2001

When David Michelson of Kensington registered seven or eight years ago for an e-mail forwarding account with the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), he remembers being told that his chosen address,, was his for life -- even if he dropped out of the group, he could pay a little extra to retain it.

So he told his correspondents to consider it his permanent address. When he retired a few years back, he decided he could do without the membership fee if he could keep his address. Instead, about a year ago, he said, the group "decided to disown me," shutting off his address. "They said since I was no longer a member, it was silly to keep me on." When he quoted the original deal, ACM insisted that its e-mail forwarding was always offered as a members-only benefit. (A manager later said that the company handling the service might have described it otherwise.)

So Michelson can't access dozens of sites where he registered with the e-mail address and can't be reached by hundreds of correspondents. And the wrong e-mail address is listed for him in online white pages and an alumni directory only once a decade.

An online move can be just as upsetting as the real-world kind. Anyone forced to change e-mail accounts without advance notice -- whether it's the result of a job loss or an Internet provider's going out of business -- feels something between disruption and despair.

What's in store, though, is mostly drudgery -- not just notifying every guy, gal and grandparent they've corresponded with, but updating numerous mailing-list subscriptions and Web-site registrations.

It's just about impossible to ensure that your employer or ISP will never go bust. But you can do things to minimize this moving misery.

The simplest recommendation is to keep business and personal addresses separate, so losing a job won't mean losing your online identity. (Employers occasionally forward ex-employees' e-mail, but unless you're the CEO it's unwise to expect that.) Even if your only Internet access is at work, a free, Web-based e-mail account is simple to use without getting strung up in your employment. And it can save you a few gray hairs when the work e-mail conks out.

But Web e-mail accounts have been known to fail as well. Experts recommend instead that users get a permanent forwarding address from an established organization -- many universities, professional and social organizations and other groups offer accounts that simply forward messages to a user's designated address.

Phil Smith III, a technical services executive in Herndon and veteran of more than a few address changes himself -- having used at least 22 e-mail accounts, with about eight currently active -- said most users don't sense how annoying it can be to nag friends to use a new address until they're forced to do so. "After that, you realize it's a major pain, and if you're smart, find a forwarding address."

Ann Shack, president of Alexandria-based, checked multiple addresses daily for about two years, because friends kept forgetting to update their address books. It's only been this year that she's been able to relax this vigilance. "I think I checked it three months ago, and while most of the stuff was junk, there are still a few messages being sent that I wanted to read!"

But to avoid becoming an e-mail orphan like Michelson, check a forwarding deal's terms of service and customer references before signing up.

If you'd rather not deal with multiple addresses and forwarding settings, some newer commercial services may help. Annandale-based ( offers e-mail forwarding and automated change-of-address notices for $10 a month (users also need to keep their old account active). The company, which says it has thousands of members, also sells its services to Internet providers, such as MSN and Starpower, which can use it as a lure to recruit customers from other firms.

Charles L. Clayton Sr., a Baltimore police officer, voiced approval of Re-Route's service for his move from AOL to MSN. He said, "Re-Route did everything I needed in two or three weeks, switched my e-mail and newsletters, and saved me jumping back and forth between the addresses."

New York-based Return Path ( focuses on online commerce, providing consumers and businesses a privacy-protected clearinghouse for address-change notifications. Carolyn Everson, CEO of, one of Return Path's corporate partners, noted the utility of this service to a company whose customers often change their names: "For 12 to 14 months after the wedding, they're often in a spending frenzy -- so it's important for us to stay in touch."

Address changes can be avoided entirely by registering one's own Internet domain name. Competition among domain registrars has driven prices down and greatly simplified the process -- users can now have the registrar send mail addressed to a personal domain sent automatically to their regular address for a small yearly cost.

Planning ahead for e-mail changes can feel like drafting a prenuptial agreement -- just when you should be happy to move in to the new address, you're already thinking of leaving. But until you have a personal domain or a reliable e-mail forwarding account, understanding what's involved in moving on can spare you some grief. Allowing old and new e-mail addresses to overlap; aggressively and repeatedly notifying correspondents of the new address; highlighting it in your e-mail signature file; and asking an old Internet provider or employer to forward e-mail can all help keep your inbox warm.

If all else fails, look for an upside while you rearrange your e-mail life. Beth Barnett, of the Mental Health Association of Montgomery County, noted how staffers got a chance to practice their social skills when the group's Internet access went out: "We rediscovered the pleasure of talking to people while conducting simple business tasks."

By Gabriel Goldberg, Copyright © 2001 The Washington Post Company


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