Four months of emails are MIA — what should we do?


Gavin Sullivan’s parents are missing four months worth of emails, and they think Comcast is to blame. What should they do?

Question: I would very much appreciate your help with an issue I’ve encountered with my family’s Comcast.net email accounts. Over four months of emails have completely disappeared from two of my family’s inboxes.

Earlier this summer, my mother noticed that she was missing every single email between March 5 and July 8. Emails before and after those dates are still there.

She contacted Comcast technical support through an online chat. The online agent was unable to resolve her issue. Later that day, she called Comcast’s phone support. The phone agent was unable to resolve the issue, but promised that a specialist would contact her within 72 hours. Nobody ever called her back.

A few days later, I noticed that I was unable to log into my Comcast account, which is associated with my mother’s account, using my regular password. I contacted Comcast via an online chat to reset the password. Once I logged into my account, I noticed that all of my emails between July 14 and July 20 were missing.

The online agent was unable to resolve the issue, but promised I would get a call the next day before 5 p.m. I never received a call from them.

A few days later, I contacted Comcast technical support over the phone. I spoke with one agent who didn’t understand the problem, so after asking twice I was transferred to a “tier two” specialist. She also couldn’t resolve the issue.

Frustrated by this situation, I called Comcast’s billing department and asked for a refund of my charges. The representative said she could only offer me approximately $18 in compensation because I didn’t notify Comcast of the issue until July 14. This seems like an incredibly low amount for a major problem which has still not been resolved in any capacity. Would you be able to help?

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Gavin Sullivan, Boston

Answer: Comcast should have called you back when it promised and fixed the problem. There’s no excuse for the endless delays.

It appears you were using Comcast’s proprietary web-based email service, which is actually pretty feature rich and, from what I can tell, quite reliable. (Disclosure: I use Google’s suite of web-based email and voicemail services, which does more or less the same thing.)

Keeping a chat record was a great first step. When the phone calls didn’t work, I might have started a paper trail. Oh, but you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you? I have a few names and numbers on my site.

Let’s pause to consider the irony that you’re sending an email about your broken email.

As is so often the case with technology, your problem could be caused by almost anything. It looks as if Comcast.net deleted several months worth of emails, but the fact that the company couldn’t troubleshoot on its end might have been a sign that the problem was on your end. I might have checked all the settings on your computer and any email clients you might be using to check your Comcast emails.

I contacted Comcast on your behalf. A technician got in touch with your parents and pinpointed the problem to an email client on her Mac. You are now able to retrieve all of your emails.

You might consider switching to a web-based client for your email. It takes a little getting used to but it will prevent this problem from ever happening again.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • PsyGuy

    Why should Comcast be expected to fix everything? Maybe people should understand the tools before they use them? What’s next someone doesn’t know how to work the dishwasher, call Comcast? How do you turn the windshield wipers on? No problem, call Comcast.

    Really, if the LW wanted their email fixed without having to contact you, all they had to do was call to cancel their account.

  • Freehiker

    You don’t really expect people to take responsibility for their own actions do you?

  • Rebecca

    If the issue wasn’t on comcasts end, how exactly were they supposed to fix it? As much as I dislike comcast, I can’t really find them at fault here.

    However, I can see the frustration in speaking to them several times with no resolution. Of course, we don’t know what they suggested to troubleshoot, and they certainly can’t be expected to troubleshoot pc issues that have nothing to do with them.

  • sirwired

    Assuming they were set up for POP instead of IMAP, Comcast can’t do a *bleeping!* thing once you pull those messages down. (Most clients delete them from the server after a few days; a legacy of the days when you might only have a storage allowance of a few MB.)

  • backprop

    I can’t believe I’m saying this, and I think I’ll need another shower after having just taken one but….. I feel sorry for Comcast on this one.

    Nothing is worse for tech support than getting blamed for something that’s out of your control.

  • Rebecca

    Seriously! Siding with Comcast made me need to smack my head against the wall a few times!

  • DChamp56

    How is this Comcast’s fault? They do not archive your email. Get yourself an email client (there’s a bunch of them for free) that will download your email to your PC so it’ll be your own responsibility. I think she owes Comcast an apology.

  • Bubbles

    It makes me laugh that the problem wasn’t Comcast’s but the pressure is still put on them to fix the problem. You can’t expect a company that provides technical support to also troubleshoot every piece of software from multiple companies on every persons computer. That’s just unrealistic.

    Might be worth asking the neighbor kid in 9th grade 2 doors down to come take a look next time.

  • MarkKelling

    OK, sure Comcast, blame it on the fact she had a Mac. Yeah, that is the whole problem.

    The article states that the LW was using the provided web-based email client but later states “You might consider switching to a web-based client for your email … it will prevent this problem from ever happening again.” If the LW is already using a web-based product then how is using a web-based product going to fix the issue? No, it won’t. What the LW has to do is pick a single way of accessing the email and stick with it. Don’t use the web-based option one time and then use an email program on the computer the next. If you are computer savvy enough, this can be done if both access options are configured to do exactly the same thing with the email, but most people are not that capable.

  • Richard Smith

    Too many support people assume Windows. 28.5% of the home computer market is now Mac.

  • Richard Smith

    For most computer users, the industry has been trying to promote home computing as a seamless product. Your average consumer should not be expected to understand the differences between different mail user agents, protocols, etc. The industry has been promoting an “it just works” attitude.

    Since, to the average consumer, the internet provider appears to be responsible for mail delivery and storage, it should be incumbent on that provider to include reasonable support with their service (hence, Internet Service Provider.) Worse, for many people, these are monopoly providers — in that case those providers need to understand that there are different uses for the service. That is one of the (few) prices they must pay for their incredibly privileged monopoly position: they absolutely must be able to support everyone’s reasonable use.

    Using Mac Mail is certainly a reasonable use.

    And, I’ll note: Keeping everything in “the cloud” is not a solution for everybody. I don’t want password reset emails stored indefinitely in the cloud, for example.

  • jerryatric

    NAH I the “old man” have a real easy solution! Call one of my sons. ET VOILA problem solved

  • John Baker

    I almost tossed my cookies this morning having the thought… I guess Comcast is blameless for this one…

    Sounds like the LW needs to go get a service contract with the geek squad.

  • emanon256

    This is hard for me to vote today. I am leaning towards No. Actually, its not that hard. No it is. They should have called when they said they would, and they should have helped. They do say they provide support for their customers, and they did have the knowledge to fix it, but resisted using it.

    Loosing e-mail is horrible!!! But I have a feeling (but no time to look it up) that Comcast probably states that they are not responsible for e-mail left on their servers. As I was reading, I was thinking it could be a client that is downloading the e-mail and removing it from the server. I guess that was the case, and I am glad they got their e-mail back.

    I don’t use Comcast or any commercial provider for e-mail. I rent space for a VM and have my own e-mail server on my rented VM, however I still download 100% of my e-mail to my computer and back it up, while also leaving it on the server. I pay on the cheap, so my service provider doesn’t guaranty against data loss. It would cost more than I am willing to pay to have them back it up, so I just do it myself.

    ETA: Having read the other comments, I agree with many people, but stills tick with No only because Comcast states on their website that they help people setup and troubleshoot their Comcast e-mail account. Yes its the customers fault, but Comcast states they will provide support.

  • pauletteb

    It doesn’t matter that the problem turned out to be on the customer’s end; they shouldn’t have been left hanging. Part of good customer service is helping customers resolve issues that aren’t your fault, and someone from Comcast (or “CommunistCast,” as it’s fondly called by some of my friends who are stuck with it) could have figured out the problem early on had they actually bothered to check.

  • VoR61

    Have dealt with this many times in my career. When providing email services, the provider has the responsibility to troubleshoot to the point that they can determine where the problem is AND is not. In this case, I would have instructed the customer to check using the browser. If the emails were there, the issue is on the customer’s system, and Comcast “could” bow out. If not, then Comcast could continue the diagnosis …

  • PsyGuy

    Uhmmm, I just use google gmail, and everything works.

  • The Original Joe S

    Not quite true, depending on your definition of “archive”.

    I called them for assistance, and the first line guy actually totally erased my e-mail account’s mail messages! I told him to restore them; he said there was nothing he could do. I wrote to the county regulatory body, who contacted Comcast’s executive assistance office. One of their people contacted me, and fixed the problem – they got the mails restored.

    Executive assistance dept can be of great help. Call up the first line and ask for the executive assistance office. You’ll have to leave a voicemail; they’ll call you back. Once you talk to a person, you’ll get their e-mail address and a phone number to call them and leave them a voicemail.

  • The Original Joe S

    And, I forgot to mention, I always download the mails to my machine, and store the older ones in “local” folders, which, in the case of my laptop, are on an external drive. I use Thunderbird. When setting it up, one should make sure to select “Leave msgs on server forever” so that you are the one who decides when to trash them.

  • Badcat Besseya

    There is almost always a tremendous amount of finger-pointing that goes on in the average trouble ticket. Much of it is pure organic fertilizer. (see., e.g., the current mutual lawsuits between Oracle and CoverOregon).

    I fault Comcast here for not following up *when they promised this*. I fault Chris for not telling us where the email was stored — on the home machine or on Comcast’s servers, and what protocols were being used on both ends — hard to assess where blame lies when you don’t have enough of the facts to begin to judge. I think I fault Gavin for not knowing who was responsible for what (on the basis of this story, which may not be the entire story).

    Computers don’t make things easier for the average Joe or Jane… they simply hide the complexity of what’s going on deeper with a slick-ish interface. It’s foolish to think that the average consumer can as easily learn to trace non-routine faults in a computer board or system or piece of software as someone who has been trained to do these things. That’s what support groups are for, to help analyze and figure out solutions. And that’s part of the reason we pay internet SERVICE PROVIDERS — they’re not just a data hose, they need to be a SERVICE organization.

    We users need to be defensive. If your email is important to you, back it up on a local device or two. If it’s really important, pick a fault-tolerant method like RAID 5 or 6. Don’t rely on home-burned CDs for more than a few years. Or pay for backup service, preferably from an organization who knows how to do secure backups (“The Cloud”, at its most basic, is not very private or secure). Run active defenses on your system that foil malware attacks. Keep your system updated. Subscribe to newsletters like SANS RISK or even SANS most basic, plain language bulletin, OUCH! and read it. And pick ISPs who actually DO provide service.

    Why yes, I’m a fossilgeezer user that dates back to bangpath addresses. And I’ve fired a number of ISPs for incompetence and poor service. And I follow the two basic user rules of computing: always assume that whatever you write now will eventually be painted on a billboard outside your house, and two, the old story about the programming contest between Jesus and the devil… http://pmaksimovich.tripod.com/Varia/English/jesus.txt

  • MarkKelling

    The LW was using a utility provided by Comcast to access email. Who else were they going to call, Eudora?

    Sure, it turned out that they were using multiple email access methods which is what caused the issue and it really wasn’t the Comcast utility that was at fauly. But you would think that Comcast would have a script containing the question similar to: “Do you use any other method to access your email?” when this issue is reported. We can hope they do now.

  • sunshipballoons

    But the point is she wasn’t using a utility provided by comcast to access email. The problem was the email client on her computer at home. And yet comcast fixed it anyway.

    In my experience, Comcast customer services is a craps shoot. They have a good chunk of people who are dedicated and great. The rest are awful.

  • sunshipballoons

    The letter writer was clearly confused, since Comcast helped the customer find the emails on her non-web based email client at home. This one is on the customer.

  • emanon256

    Google terms and conditions state that they can collect and use any e-mail you send, receive, etc. So I steer clear.

    They also make no warranty that your mail or data will be available.

    Didn’t CE lose a lot of e-mail once, and didn’t he loose a lot of Data? Wasn’t that all on Google web apps?

  • Nathan Witt

    This sort of thing is to be expected when you’re selling a technology-based service to people who don’t really know how the technology works. It’s certainly not Comcast’s responsibility to fix the customer’s computer settings, but it’s a good idea to have a tech support department that DOES know how the technology works and can help a customer pinpoint the issue, whether it’s on Comcast’s side or the customer’s, because people only know and care that their Comcast email is not working right and Comcast couldn’t fix it, and they’ll tell everybody (including Chris, apparently) about it.

  • Bubbles

    Haha… yea. I was always that son! It’s the least you can do for having been granted life by your parents. :-)

  • Joe Farrell

    4 months of lost emails? Join the IRS.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    The solution to this problem is perplexing. What is an “email client on her mac”? From the comments, it appears that everyone else understands it. I’m confident that someone will enlighten me. For the record, I keep any important emails in folders on my hard drive and also on my ISP.

  • Bill___A

    Check webmail if you suspect something is missing.
    Maybe Comcast should send the OP a bill for all the time and effort they caused Comcast to incur.

    Furthermore, Comcast’s duty is to deliver it, not store it, so best do some backups of your email yourselves.

    Nice of Comcast to fix it, but seems the OP was perfectly willing to blame and shame them for something they didn’t do.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Very, very non-technical explanation: it’s a program installed on your computer that is set up to go get mail that’s sitting out there on a server. I can check my email by going directly to the server access, like to mail (dot) google (dot) com or mail (dot) aol (dot) com or whatever Comcast’s mail website is. OR, I could have a program that does all that work for me and checks my server for new mail and then pulls it down (in my case, only a copy is pulled) to my client program. I can read and send email from the client program. An example would be Thunderbird: I have it looking at 4 different email accounts that I have and they all show up automatically in Thunderbird, rather than my having to go and look at each of the 4 individually.

    I have no idea what the client is on a Mac; I do know that the client on my iPod and my husband’s iPad, for lack of a better word, sucks.

  • MarkKelling

    Mac client is called Mail. It is an Apple provided piece of software that does an OK job and is pretty much the only option to connect to the Apple email server these days.

  • Mark Carrara

    Multiple people ask how is it Comcasts fault? it isn’t their fault, but how would they know unless they helped troubleshoot the issue? I am the director of technology and have worked with computers for over 20 years and yes I would have called Comcast to find out what was happening. I would expect them to help me troubleshoot the issue, and if we determine it is not their issue then tell me, but don’t ignore me until you know what’s wrong.

  • PsyGuy

    Yeah they could call Eudora, it makes as much, if not more sense then calling Comcast. This is analogous to burning out a light bulb, and calling the power/electric company.

    How about this for a script “please make an appointment at your nearest Apple Genius Bar, since the issue is with your computer hardware/software and not the wire/cable we use to provide you network access”.

  • PsyGuy

    Yes, but Google’s philosophy statement is “Don’t Be Evil”.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Thank you, Jeanne. I’ve always used AOL or Yahoo, tried Comcast but it was beyond awful. So poor me, I have no server, no client. I’ll go out to mail.aol and see what I find. I love learning new stuff. Seeing your name always makes me smile; a woman named Jeanine is head of our home office in Omaha and I like her very much.

  • Richard Smith

    Side note on retained email — some businesses are now encouraging employees not to archive email indefinitely. Less to store. Less to subpoena.

  • Benjamin Barnett

    I believe the email issue was an issue of it not forwarding properly.

  • JenniferFinger

    While strictly speaking the issue wasn’t caused by Comcast, the LW wouldn’t have known that had they not asked Comcast to help. Many people aren’t sufficiently tech-savvy to know when it is the Internet provider’s fault and when it is their own.

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