Confessions of a data hoarder

BY J. CARLTON COLLINS, CPA

Q: How long should I keep email before deleting it from Outlook?

A: I probably qualify to participate in one of those hoarding shows because I have every email I’ve ever sent or received, dating back more than 20 years (starting with my AOL email accounts). Emails sent or received using a business email address (even personal emails) are generally considered to be the property of the employer; therefore, your question is one of corporate policy, not personal preference. Presented below are a few points regarding the benefits and risks you might consider. Keeping older emails can be beneficial for several reasons, a few examples of which follow:

a. Older email receipts may provide proof of purchase.

b. Older emails may contain documentation of client approvals to perform work.

c. Older emails may provide evidence and documentation proving the validity of a business trip deduction or other expenditure in the event of an IRS audit.

d. Older emails often contain references to phone numbers, email addresses, or people’s names.

e. Older email newsletter articles may serve as a handy reference.

f. The process of deleting emails involves decision-making and can be a time-consuming effort. It might save you more time to simply keep them all.

The risks associated with keeping older emails are minimal, as follows:

a. Unless your older emails contain incriminating information or data, there should not be much risk to keeping them indefinitely for archive purposes.

b. The security settings and permissions needed to protect a few emails are the same for protecting a large volume of emails.

c. Hard disk space is now so affordable that the practice of deleting files to preserve hard disk space is no longer a valid reason for most companies.

d. It does take a little longer to search through 50,000 emails compared with just 500 emails, and it takes much longer to back up a 15-gigabyte PST file compared to a 1-GB PST file; therefore, computer performance is a valid consideration.

The importance of older emails and the points listed above may vary depending on your industry, the nature of your emails, and how your organization uses email. Your organization should weigh the merits of these points to determine which emails, if any, are to be deleted, and to establish a uniform corporate policy for employees to follow. You already know that an email hoarder like me would advise you to keep them all.

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