Free services protect your e-mail

Send self-destructing notes outside your e-mail, combine and back up all your mail in a single searchable repository, and camouflage your e-mail address by converting it to a graphic.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
5 min read

Technologies come and go, but e-mail just keeps chugging along. According to a Pew Internet report released August 9, search and e-mail remain the most popular Internet activities: 92 percent of online adults use search engines, and 59 percent use them on an average day; e-mail is also used by 92 percent of adults online, 61 percent of whom use it on a typical day.

So it's no surprise e-mail scams continue to proliferate. The FBI's New E-Scams & Warnings page is alerting people to scam e-mails purporting to be raising money to help victims of Hurricane Irene. Another frequent ruse is an e-mail claiming to be from the IRS and asking for personal information to process a tax payment or refund. As the agency explains on its Problem Alerts page, the IRS never sends unsolicited e-mails requesting personal or financial information.

You'll find a description of the 10 most common e-mail scams on the U.S. government's OnGuard Online site.

There's more to e-mail security than avoiding Web crooks. Sometimes we need to send a note we know will be read only by the intended recipient. Most of us have more than one e-mail account--and sometimes as many as five or six different in-boxes--so just finding a message can be a challenge. We also have to make sure our important messages are safely backed up. And we need to protect our addresses themselves from the Web's e-mail-address scrapers.

These free services let you send a message that is delivered outside your e-mail account and that is erased automatically after a set time; combine several accounts into a searchable central repository; back up multiple e-mail accounts; and convert your e-mail address (or other text) into a graphic that can't be scraped.

Secure-message service ensures your privacy

There may be times when you want to send a message that leaves no traces. Since "deleting" an e-mail doesn't really remove it from the sending server--let alone from the recipient's in-box and all the stops in between--you need a messaging system that keeps the message itself outside of either e-mail account. You also need to ensure that the text will disappear once it has been read.

That's the idea behind the free Privnote service. Write your note on the site, check the option to "Notify me when this note gets read" if you wish, and click Create Note to generate a link you can paste into an e-mail to the note's recipient.

Privnote secure-messaging service
Compose your note in a text box on the Privnote site and then send a link to the note's recipient; after it has been read, the note is erased. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

After the person opens the note and closes the page, the note disappears. The recipient can copy and paste the note's contents, so you can't be sure the message will not reappear elsewhere, but at least you know only the person who receives the link has access to the note. The recipient is given the option to compose another secure note.

Privnote message-receipt page
While the note's recipient can copy and paste its contents, Privnote promises that no one else will have access to it before and after it's sent. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

Create a central repository for all your e-mail

Last November I explained how to combine and organize multiple e-mail accounts. In previous posts I covered how to forward messages from Gmail to Outlook and Thunderbird, as well as how to reverse the process to have your Outlook and Thunderbird mail appear in your Gmail in-box.

The free GMX Mail service offers the Mail Collector that integrates your Web mail and ISP mail accounts, along with your mail and Facebook contacts. GMX also provides an organizer with a calendar and task list, up to 2GB of file storage, and file sharing.

The GMX Mail Collector wizard makes it easy to import mail from your accounts: simply provide your user ID and password. Creating a free GMX account takes only a few minutes and includes a custom "@gmx.com" address. You can create e-mail aliases, mail filters, autoresponders, and signatures. There's even an option for using text only rather than HTML. But my favorite GMX feature is the ability to search all your accounts at one time.

Archive all your e-mail in a single app

When you use multiple e-mail accounts and programs, you can never be sure where all your messages are. The free MailStore Home lets you create archives of all your ISP and Web mail accounts that you can view in a single interface.

After you download and install the program, you select one of the 11 archive options, which include Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Exchange, Mozilla Thunderbird, Gmail, Windows Live Mail, POP3, and IMAP. For Outlook, you can archive a local profile or a .pst file. You can select a date range for the archive, exclude unread mail, and choose other options.

MailStore Home archive wizard
Select which messages you want to include in the mail archive via the MailStore Home archive wizard. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

Likewise for Gmail you can archive only selected folders and set a connection-timeout threshold. After the archive is created you can search the mail store, save messages in external folders, view and print messages, and delete them, among other operations.

MailStore Home main window
The free MailStore Home program integrates your e-mail archives for viewing and restoring messages from various ISP and Web mail accounts. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

Prevent e-mail-address scraping by converting it from text to a graphic

One of the techniques spammers use to acquire e-mail addresses is to scan Web pages and other text files for any at-sign with a string of text on the left and another string of text ending in ".com", ".net", or ".edu" (among other potential suffixes) on the right. People use various methods to "munge" their addresses, such as replacing the at-sign with the word "at" separated by spaces or hyphens from the rest of the address.

Sometimes munging works, and sometimes it doesn't. Another option for displaying your address on the Web in a nonscrapable form is to convert the address into a graphic the scrapers can't read. The free Hidetext.net service will translate any string of text up to 100,000 characters into a .gif file that you can drag and drop, copy as a link or vBcode, or download.

You can either enter the text you want to convert in the site's main text box or create a .gif for a single e-mail address by entering the user ID and selecting the mail service from a drop-down menu. The text-box option lets you select one of two font styles and five different point sizes: 9, 10, 12, 14, or 16. The e-mail-address graphic is available in any of five colors: black, white, red, blue, or gray.

Bonus tip: Should you change your password?
The aptly named Should I Change My Password? site offers to let you enter your e-mail address to find out whether the address is listed in one of the massive databases of e-mail accounts spammers use to compile their list of victims.

While I have no reason to disbelieve the site's claim that it doesn't collect the e-mail addresses people enter there, I encourage everyone to change their e-mail and other important passwords regularly. If you have any question about whether your e-mail address has been compromised, devise a new password right away. Spammers have no shortage of sources for their targets. Knowing your address isn't in Should I Change My Password?'s database may only give you a false sense of security.

After all, changing your password doesn't cost you a dime, and it's a habit that can save you from a big headache down the road.