Is it possible that your e-mail program is so badly designed that it can't actually delete messages when you tell it to?
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983


Use this hidden tip to keep your mail private

April 11, 2010

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2010, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2010, The Post-Standard

   Your e-mail has a little known function that will help keep your messages private.
   It's called "compacting." When compacting isn't done, your e-mail software fills up with junk food of the e-mail kind -- with unwanted spam, with deleted messages you never wanted to read, with stuff you thought you'd tossed out months ago.
   This happens because of two oddities in the way e-mail software works:
      1. Things you put into the trash folder aren't really deleted. They're still hanging around, ready to be viewed (and restored, if you need to undo everything).
      2. Even when you DO empty the trash, stuff that was in the trash isn't really deleted. It's simply hidden. It's still visible to anyone who knows a few tricks.
   To fix this outrageous behavior, you have to compact the folders that store your mail. This gets rid of all traces of deleted messages and closes up the spaces they were taking in the mail database.
   At this point, you should be shaking your head and asking if what you just read is actually true. Is it possible that your e-mail program is so badly designed that it can't actually delete messages when you tell it to?
   Yes, indeed. That means you don't really have any privacy in your mail unless you compact your message folders often.
   There should be a menu item in your software that says "Compact" or "Rebuild." Right-clicking on any of the mailboxes in the left pane might show that option, or you can look for it in the menu structure.
   Compacting has two bonus effects: It makes your non-deleted messages easier to index and restore in case of trouble, and it frees up space (sometimes, enormous amounts) on your computer's hard drive. All three common platforms -- Windows, Macs and Linux PCs -- benefit from compacting.
   Here's where to find the menu options for compacting your mailboxes:
      Outlook Express: Select Compact all folders in the Folder menu inside the File menu.
      Outlook: In the File menu, choose Data File Management. Highlight each PST file you can locate, one at a time. Click Settings, then choose Compact Now. Microsoft Mail (in Vista): This is a little tricky. Here's a Web page that explains how to do it.
      Entourage: Press and hold the Option key while Entourage is launching.
      Thunderbird: In the File menu, choose Compact Folders. If you have multiple accounts you will need to select each account in the left pane and do it for each.
      Apple Mail: Select a folder at the left, then choose Rebuild from the Mailbox menu.
   A note to anyone who uses a Web browser to do mail such as Gmail: Compacting is automatically done for you. You don't have to do anything yourself.