In the earliest days of the internet, Geoff Harper made what seemed like a logical decision: to use his work email account for all correspondence, both professional and personal.
When he changed jobs 17 years later, he lost access to that email address and with it the account’s vast archive of notes from friends and family. He also lost the ability to log in to many websites.
“It was a crazy nightmare,” says Harper, 53, of Dallas. “You just don’t realize everything in today’s world is tied to your email. When I’m on a website and forget my password, when I try to change the password, the system demands I verify my identity by an email that’s sent to my old address. It’s been five years since I switched, and I still can’t get into some things.”
Changing an email address is a hassle. Yet sometimes we need to do it, be it for cutting the cord from your cable TV account that includes a free email address, moving to a new city where your provider is not offered or just freeing yourself from a spam-ridden account and starting fresh. But taking the effort to switch effectively is worth it.
Here are four steps that can lessen the pain:
1. Pick a new email address (or two)
Do this long before exiting your current address. Experts recommend choosing an agnostic platform — an email service not linked to other accounts or services to which you subscribe. Several popular choices are free and simple, such as Gmail, Outlook and Yahoo.
Once you choose your service, consider opening two accounts: one dedicated solely to trusted sources — family, friends, doctor’s offices — and the other for your interactions with retailers, charities and professionals. It will invariably get filled up with commercial appeals. Using a second email address for loyalty programs and such keeps your primary email address out of the hands of spammers or scammers.
“Nearly every day, I hear users publicly share their personal cellphone numbers and private email addresses within earshot of other customers,” says Neil Jones, cybersecurity evangelist at data security firm Egnyte in Mountain View, California. “Under normal circumstances, they would never share that information with strangers.”
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2. Change your info with your contacts
Tell your family and friends about your new email address and encourage them to change their electronic and physical address books. That should be relatively easy.
Then comes this potentially time-consuming task: Make a list of every important contact who may have your old email address and try, either by phone or online, to update your info with them. This includes banks, credit card companies, health care providers, landlord, loyalty accounts and utility companies. Review a few months of old emails to see if you’re forgetting anyone important.
Next, set up an auto-reply on your old account, while it’s still open, to give info about your new address. This is a backstop of sorts, reminding people who forget to use your new address as well as those you neglected to inform.
3. Delete emails from old account
Keep your old account open for at least three months after launching your new address if you can, Jones says. This will ensure you don’t miss important communications during the swap.
While both accounts are open, go through old emails and forward those you may need to your new address, then delete all of the messages and folders on the old account, he says. That limits potential hackers’ access to your personal information.
If this seems like too much hassle, many free email services have tools to let you import your entire email inbox to your new account. Then you can delete all the emails from the old account at once.
4. Close your old email account
Be sure to close the old email account eventually.
“An unmonitored email account is literally a playground for a digital attacker,” Jones says.
That’s particularly true if you haven’t cleared out what’s there. Emails can provide a wealth of personal information, including names of family members and their contact information, a list of the doctors you use, account numbers for utilities, limited banking information and anything shared in outgoing emails since you opened the account. Hackers can use that data to assume your identity, then contact friends and family for a variety of nefarious reasons.
“If you are no longer using an email account, don’t just abandon it,” says Jesse Kinser, chief information security officer at Pathwire, an email marketing company. “There is always a way to cancel the account, just as you would do for a credit card you no longer use.”
Three email alternatives
Though email continues to be highly used, other communication tools are growing in popularity and are less prone to junk mail and spam. Here are three popular alternatives.
Text messages. Sure, this mobile phone platform has been used for personal notes for almost 20 years, but many businesses are now turning to text messages more for professional communication with customers.
Slack and other team collaboration apps like it — including Google Chat and Microsoft Teams — are nearly ubiquitous office communication tools in the United States, but they can also be used for personal communications, especially for groups, like your fantasy football league or a community association. Salesforce, a customer management app for businesses, owns Slack.
WhatsApp and other messaging apps like it work on mobile devices and desktop computers and are a good option for group chats. Longer messages are legible, and attachments are easy to send. Facebook parent Meta owns both WhatsApp and the next most popular messenger app, Messenger.
— Gabriel Baumgaertner
Chris Morris is a contributing writer who covers technology and video gaming. He previously was an editor at CNN Money and Yahoo! Finance. His work also appears in Fortune, on Nasdaq.com and on CNBC.
Gabriel Baumgaertner is a contributing writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian and on Yahoo! He previously worked for sports site The Action Network and Sports Illustrated.