Inactive accounts: What can happen to unused email addresses?

Suppose your email account is your primary email address, but you still have one from your college days that you rarely log in to. Or you mostly communicate by text message, so you have an email address for when you need to register for various online services, but you don’t really check it otherwise. Many of us have such dormant accounts and don’t give them much thought.
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Make sure time doesn’t run out on an inactive email account
But an inactive email address could put you at risk – either of losing data and messages in the account, or of becoming an easy target for hackers.

What happens to inactive email accounts?

There are a lot of largely unused email addresses out there. This can have different reasons: First, people might not like giving out their primary email address online because they are worried about scams and spam. In other cases, they might have set up a new email address and find the idea of migrating all their old emails, logins and contacts to the new account overwhelming, so they leave the old account untouched. However, users may be unaware that many free email providers automatically terminate inactive email accounts and/or delete data stored in inactive email accounts after a certain period of time. This can not only mean that the user can no longer receive messages at that email address, but also that the contents of the inbox, folders, cloud storage etc. are permanently deleted, including all messages and attachments, email addresses, documents and photos. And after a certain period of time has passed, the email address may also be made available again for any user to register it.

Why are inactive email accounts a security risk?

Inactive accounts are sometimes targeted by cybercriminals, who find them an easy target because users are not as likely to notice that such accounts have been compromised. No great skills are needed to break into an email account if the hacker can get their hands on the password – and many older email accounts have passwords that are considered vulnerable and easy to guess by today’s standards. Or scammers might target the account in a phishing hoax to gain the login credentials. Unfortunately, older secondary email accounts are often the ones we enter if we are asked to provide a password recovery contact for a primary account. This makes it easy for cybercriminals to reset passwords and take control of other accounts once they have accessed the inactive account.

When could my email address expire?

Because of the abovementioned risks associated with inactive email accounts, free email providers have set “expiration dates” for inactive accounts – usually ranging from 3 to 24 months. Currently, many free email providers have automatic processes in place for either blocking inactive accounts, deleting the messages and data they contain, or both. If you are concerned about losing access to an email account or its contents, check the provider’s current terms of use and be sure to log in regularly within the time period indicated. In the case of, our free email accounts are considered inactive after six months of no login activity (for more information, see our terms and conditions).

Preventing email account deletion

The only way to prevent most free email accounts from having data deleted or being terminated due to inactivity is to log in to them regularly as outlined above. If you think you may forget, you can set up automatic reminders on your phone or other online calendar to perform a quick login within the required interval.

If your main reason for having several email accounts is that you dislike giving out your main email address, you could instead set up several alias addresses in your account, including one that serves as your “junk mail” address. You can then use an email filter to automatically send all incoming messages to that address to a custom folder – or straight to the Spam folder. This means that your main email address is reserved for contacts who are important to you, but you don’t have the hassle of juggling several different email accounts.

Is it possible to reactivate an email account?

Once an email account has been terminated, it is not possible to restore the data that it contained – for reasons of data privacy, the email provider has to delete all the emails and other information in a closed account. This means that it is almost never possible to reactivate email accounts in the sense of restoring the contents of the inbox. However, many free email providers make it possible to register the email address of a deleted account after a certain amount of time has passed. So if you had an email address you liked, but accidentally let expire, you can try re-registering the name. Keep in mind that the address will be generally available for signup, so it is possible that someone will beat you to it and your old address will be unavailable.

What’s important to keep in mind when you delete an email account?

If you decide that your old, inactive email accounts are more trouble than they’re worth, you can simply delete them. Obviously you’ll want to make sure you’ve saved any important old emails, contact information, photos, etc. from the inbox or transferred them to your primary account before you pull the plug on an old account. But it is also important to think about where you might have used that old email address. If, for example, it is your login for a social media platform or gaming console, be sure to change the email address in those settings BEFORE you delete the email account – otherwise you will not be able to receive any automatic emails sent to the old address asking you to confirm the change. Similarly, you should make sure that the old email address is no longer listed as your secondary email address for another email account – this will not only make it impossible for you to recover the password for your primary account if you forget it, but if someone else registers your old address as their own, they will now have access to any password resets you request.

We hope that this post helps you weigh the options and risks of inactive email accounts. We look forward to your feedback below!

Images: 1&1/Gettyimages

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