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E-cards saving the day for the holiday harried

Many consumers scrambling to prepare for the holidays are saving time by sending electronic greeting cards instead of writing paper cards by hand.

    Many consumers scrambling to prepare for the holidays are saving time by sending electronic greetings instead of writing cards by hand.

    E-cards have undeniable advantages for the holiday harried. They are usually free, filled with graphics and animation and, best of all, they usually get there when a person wants them to.

    Hallmark.com, which launched four years ago, said it has been sending out approximately two e-cards per second, and it anticipates that traffic to its Web site could increase fivefold in the next week and a half as recipients come to pick up their holiday e-cards.

    BlueMountain.com, another e-cards provider, expects to have more than 100 million cards sent this month, compared with about 80 million sent during the same time last year. The company said it sends about 50 million cards per month during the rest of the year.

    Although the number of people sending e-cards seems to be growing, some recipients say the electronic version can't hold a candle to the old-fashioned kind.

    "There is nothing like the feeling of opening my 'snail mail' box and finding paper cards. I just don't get that same feeling with the email cards," Jamie Babin, a single mom in Ontario, Canada, wrote in an email. "I can save (paper cards) for years to come and they are nice to share with my kids."

    The increased traffic to e-card providers' sites may help lighten the load of the friendly neighborhood mail carrier, but some networking experts predict the trend could cause a slowdown in corporate email systems.

    Email abuse at the workplace tends to hit a peak during seasonal events, such as Christmas, when online holiday greeting cards are passed within and outside of a company's network, according to Telemate.Net Software, an Atlanta-based company that provides Internet usage management services.

    "Administrators see that the network is unusually slow and may conclude that the company needs more capacity," Rasheed Mateen, NetSpective product manager at Telemate.Net, said in a statement. "But in reality, a deluge of seasonal email may be to blame."

    Electronic card companies counter that their services have little effect on corporate email servers.

    "I think this is being blown a little out of proportion," said Kathi Mishek, spokeswoman for Kansas City, Mo.-based Hallmark.com. "We don't believe it's going to affect anybody else's servers as much as everybody is saying it's going to."

    Mishek said it has about 12 million identified Hallmark.com users and that its consumers tend to send both e-cards and paper cards.

    Although Hallmark.com said it will see an increase in usage this season, the fact that many people will be on vacation next week could take the pressure off of employers' servers.

    In addition, most online card companies insist that they have built their sites to make e-cards easy to receive. Instead of consumers sending an e-card as a huge file, many companies supply a link that the recipient can click to retrieve the card.

    "We've been careful to not (place) burdens...onto consumers cards," said Mark Rinella, vice president and general manager of BlueMountain. "It's just a simple text email to a link to your card. So we're very, very lightweight."

    And although most electronic holiday cards supply this type of link, some cards come with attachments that could clog up space or, even worse, contain a virus.

    "I've seen a bunch of little cartoon cards, and you send them around as attachments and run them," Privacy Foundation chief technology officer Richard Smith said. "If at some point your computer's gotten infected with a file infector, it sort of lurks in the background waiting for you to run other programs and then you can give it to someone else."

    Smith said he has not heard of any complaints like this so far this holiday season, however. Instead, he said he is more concerned with what companies do with the email addresses they acquire when people send electronic cards through their sites.

    "Are they going to start sending them advertising?" he asked.

    Naomi Lubick, who said she sends mostly birthday e-cards, said she likes them because they are cheap and easy to use, and because the added features, such as animation, make reading them fun.

    But she agrees that getting an e-card in your in-box is not the same as getting a paper card in your mailbox.

    "What does bother me about electronic cards is that they are too easy and take little planning, so it doesn't mean as much...to the recipient somehow," Lubick wrote in an email. "A snail mail card means more thought went into it."

    News.com's Cecily Barnes contributed to this report.