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Hotmail clean-out catches members out

Microsoft starts deleting sent Hotmail messages that are more than 30 days old, angering some members. Are free Internet services on the way out?

For three months, freelance writer Lydia Zajc updated friends and family on her adventures in Southeast Asia by sending detailed messages from her Hotmail account.

In a series of e-mails, she described munching noodles and buns on the streets of China and watching monks receive alms in Laos. Zajc planned to repurpose the e-mails for travel writing pieces when she returned home.

But on Wednesday, Zajc, who had saved the messages in her Hotmail Sent file, logged on to find that her e-mails had evaporated into thin air. "I literally broke down in tears," said Zajc, who now lives in Newfoundland, Canada, and for the past 24 hours has been furiously e-mailing recipients of the messages, hoping some of them saved her missives.

As part of a series of new storage policies aimed at driving more people toward its paid services, Microsoft has instituted a plan to delete sent Hotmail messages that are more than 30 days old. On Tuesday, it began erasing all messages in subscribers' Sent file transmitted before June 16.

Many customers are steaming, saying they've been caught off guard by the deletions, losing valuable files and writings. Further infuriating users is the fact that most Hotmail accounts do not automatically save messages to the Sent file, meaning any e-mail that's in there was flagged by the person as an important message worth keeping. What's more, subscribers have been told they cannot recover deleted messages.

Hotmail user Becket Dillard sent a desperate message to Hotmail on Wednesday, begging for the return of his messages. "My Sent folder has been emptied without any warning! I need those messages back so that I can archive them ASAP," Dillard wrote in a message to Microsoft.

However, Microsoft said that was impossible, according to a message from Hotmail that Dillard supplied to CNET News.com. "I am sorry but you can no longer retrieve those messages," a Hotmail customer support representative told him.

No more free rides?
As more and more consumers are discovering, such are the pitfalls of relying on free Internet services. Companies can change their usage policies at will, leaving customers with little recourse.

MSN product manager Parul Shah said that at least the company warned people before trashing the messages. In mid-June, the company sent out an e-mail that included notification that old messages in the Sent file would be deleted, Shah said. In the face of a tough economy, many other companies providing free services have simply folded, abandoning customers and deleting millions of personal files.

"It may take a little time to get used to," she said of the Hotmail changes. "Hopefully it won't be too much of a shock."

Shah said the deletion of old sent messages is part of Microsoft's plan to help people manage their e-mail, adding the company figured "if it's 30 days or older, it's probably safe to go ahead and delete that."

Shah said the easiest way to ensure that messages are saved is to create special folders and move the messages out of the sent file.

In the throes of a tech depression, companies including Microsoft and Yahoo are aggressively trying to push people to paid services by making it harder than ever to rely on the free ones. Apple Computer is cutting free e-mail service altogether.

Microsoft is hoping changes officially instituted on July 16 will entice people to shell out $19.95 a year for additional services and an additional 8MB of storage on top of the 2MB they get for free. In addition to deleting old sent messages, the company also has cut free access to POP accounts, and is more actively enforcing the 2MB limit.

Microsoft claims more than 110 million Hotmail users, but fewer than 300,000 of those have signed up for the extra storage feature.