I’m the kind of person who hates losing old copies of digital things—photographs, messages, emails, videos, etc. While I doubt I’ll ever take a walk down memory lane and reminisce over random emails I sent in 2007, I don’t like feeling as if I couldn’t do that if I wanted or needed to.
In other words, I’m a digital pack rat. And it’s possible that this week’s Tech 911 letter-writer is as well. And you know what? I don’t fault them in the slightest. I get it, I do.
Lifehacker reader Larry writes:
“How can I retrieve old email accounts that were on different phones from a few years ago??? Any help in this matter is greatly appreciated, as I forgot the passwords to some of them.”
Short. Succinct. I like it. So, I have good news and bad news. There are two different protocols you (or your favorite email-checking software/apps) can use to access your messages: POP3 or IMAP. To keep it simple, POP3 downloads messages from the server to your computer or device, whereas IMAP merely synchronizes your messages between your computer or device and the server.
Though I can’t think of any apps or services nowadays that don’t default to IMAP—mostly since I only ever use Gmail—it’s possible that you might have set up your older email accounts to use POP3. If that’s the case, and if your email provider defaulted to deleting messages off the server when they were downloaded via POP3 (versus giving you copies of all the mail you receive), you’re out of luck. Regaining access to your older accounts won’t help you find your older email, since that’s all (presumably) been downloaded to your smartphone, laptop, or desktop computer, to name a few examples.
If you used IMAP, you’re in luck—assuming your provider hasn’t deleted your account because you haven’t logged in for a few years. Here are a few of the more popular services and how long they’ll wait for you to log in before deleting your account:
Yahoo Mail: 12 months
Gmail: Google previously gave users nine months of inactivity before they could—but not necessarily would—delete the account. I believe this policy changed sometime around 2013–2014, and Google now keeps your account active in perpetuity.
AOL Mail: 180 days
Outlook.com: 365 days
You didn’t mention what email services you used, so I’d figure that out first, and then go check to see what their account-deletion policies are. If you can’t remember what services you used (or even your email address), I’d get creative. Search for your name in the primary email service you’re using now to see if you send anything to yourself from an older account at any point. If you remember the older providers, run wildcard searches for any mail from their domains with your name in it. This might get tedious, but it’s a great way to find… yourself.
You can also try searching through your computer(s) to see if you have any older documents or files with your older email accounts in them. You might also have saved older logins in whatever password manager you use (if any), which could help you remember your older accounts.
If you set up some kind of recovery number or alternate email address, you might also be able to use that to help find the name of your forgotten email account—if a provider allows it.
Above all else, all of the major email services have various recovery tools you can use to find an older account, assuming it still exists (Yahoo, Gmail, AOL, Outlook, et cetera). If you’re talking about old email from, say, a job you had—which was probably kept on a company’s Exchange server, for example—I doubt you’ll have any way to retrieve it. If you had an email address from some random place that isn’t one of the big providers, you might have to contact them directly for help. And if you had an email address from an old ISP you don’t use anymore, you’re probably stuck.
Anyway, those are a few of the scenarios I can think of related to your question. Let me know what you find out—or, at the very least, what email accounts you’re trying to recover—and I’ll let you know if I can come up with even more specific advice.