Start with one of two free backup utilities designed expressly for e-mail: Amic Email Backup, which copies everything–including your address book, account settings, and message rules–to a single compressed file; or Mailstore Home, which duplicates all your mail into a searchable archive and optionally backs it up to CDs or DVDs.

Amic supports nine e-mail clients, including Outlook, Outlook Express, and Eudora. Mailstore Home works with Windows Mail, Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird, and Seamonkey.

Of course, unless you put those discs in a safe or upload the archive file to the Web, those kinds of backups are still vulnerable to fires and other local disasters. That’s one reason to consider routing your e-mail through Gmail IMAP, which effectively creates a Web-based archive by syncing mail between Google’s servers and your PC.

Start by signing up for a free Gmail account, then enabling IMAP and following the configuration instructions for your mail client. Then you can either configure your mail account to forward all messages to your Gmail account or set up Gmail’s Mail Fetcher to retrieve messages from your ISP’s POP3 server. From then on, all of your mail will go through Gmail, giving you more than 6GB of storage space for messages and attachments, and some excellent spam filtering in the bargain. Once you have everything set up, you’ll forever have copies of your messages available in your Web-accessible Gmail account. That’s not only an ideal e-mail backup, but just plain handy, too.

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