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"So far, I've gotten 31 passwords and freaked lots of people out by sending them mail from their own accounts and changing their passwords!" Big talk like this, found at one hacker's Web site, is enough to turn the stomach of any Hotmail user. Last year, an exposed defect in Hotmail's security forced Microsoft to close down the site's servers for approximately eight hours. After plugging the holes, Microsoft brought in privacy watchdog Truste to declare Hotmail secure from hacks. Even so, persistent miscreants will likely find ways to exploit JavaScript, browser architecture, or server software and get into e-mail accounts. Here's how to protect your privacy, regardless of the free e-mail service you use.

Keep JavaScript out of your e-mail. Malicious JavaScript code embedded in e-mail messages endangers your account security and could make your system susceptible to damage, such as that caused by viruses. You can combat this threat in two ways. The first is to set up your e-mail app to refuse any messages that contains HTML code - plain text can't carry JavaScript. (Look for this option under the Preferences or Options link of your e-mail provider.) The drawback of doing this is that you may end up turning away legitimate mail that happens to carry HTML coding.

Your second option is to turn off JavaScript support in your browser before you log on to collect mail. (In Internet Explorer, select Tools-Internet Options-Security and set the security slider to High. In Netscape Navigator, click Edit-Preferences-Advanced and uncheck Enable JavaScript.) If you want to activate JavaScript at a given site, you'll have to turn the Enable JavaScript option back on.

Ban the spam. Reducing the number of strangers who know your address will help minimise the amount of unwanted e-mail you get. When subscribing to a site, don't check off boxes that add your name to online listings - spammers go there to collect addresses. Turn on spam filters at sites that provide them. And if you really want to be cautious, get your free service at a site which lets you specify the senders whose mail you'll accept.

Clear the cache. When you're using a public-access PC to check for e-mail, remember that browsers save information in the system's memory and hard drive when they visit sites. Unless you see (and check off) an increased security option in a public-access PC's log-in screen, you can't assume it will purge pages when you leave - meaning that subsequent users of that computer could read your e-mail. For peace of mind at services that don't offer an explicitly secure log-in, flush the cache manually. (In IE, select Tools-Internet Options-Delete Files. In Navigator, go to Edit-Preferences, expand the Advanced category, click Cache and then clear both the memory and disk caches.) Also, watch what you click. Hotmail, for example, provides two check-in options: one is secure, while the other saves your log-in name and password for instant access. Click the wrong option and you may regret it.

Clear the folders. With Web-based e-mail, the longer you leave messages online, the more time a hacker has to try to read them. Delete messages as soon as you've read them and empty the trash folder. Save messages you'll want to access again to your hard disk. If your service lets you save messages using a regular e-mail program (as both Yahoo and Hotmail do), take advantage of that feature.

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