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E-mail has become an extremely popular method of communication. Throughout the world, billions of e-mail messages are sent over the Internet every day. The use of e-mail has become an indispensable part of practicing law. What e-mail really is and how it travels to its destination is something of a mystery to most people. In this article, Roger C. Schechter looks at e-mail and how it works. WHAT IS E-MAIL? E-mail is similar to regular mail in that you have a message, an address and a carrier that figures out how to get it from here to there. What differentiates e-mail from regular mail is that it is an electronic message sent from one computer to another. Using e-mail, you can send or receive text messages that also contain attachments, such as formatted documents or pictures. You can even send video and sound. Just as a letter makes stops at different postal stations along its way, e-mail passes from one computer, known as a mail server, to another as it travels over the Internet. Once it arrives at the destination mail server, it is stored in an electronic mailbox until retrieved by the recipient. This entire process allows you to quickly communicate with others around the world at any time of the day or night. THE COMPONENTS To send and receive e-mail, the necessary components are: an e-mail client (software), a mail server and a means to transmit the information — the Internet. It all starts with the e-mail client. A message is typed on a PC using an e-mail client. An e-mail client is a program such as Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express or Eudora, which enables the user to type a message, address it and send it. Attachments can also be sent. Some subscribe to a free e-mail service like Hotmail or Yahoo and use a Web page-based e-mail client. If you are an AOL user, then your e-mail client may be AOL’s mail reader. Your e-mail client allows you to add attachments to e-mail messages you send, and also lets you save attachments from messages that you receive. Attachments might include word processing documents, spreadsheets or pictures. Usually, an attachment is not text (if it were, you would simply include it in the body of the message). Since e-mail messages can contain only text, and attachments are not text, the e-mail client must convert the attachment into text so that it can be transmitted. Your e-mail client program converts attachments you wish to send into simple text and adds that text hidden within your e-mail message. The recipient’s e-mail client decodes that part of the message as an attachment and permits the recipient to save the attachment to their system. Although the process works well, this explains why sometimes an attachment can arrive corrupted. E-MAIL SERVERS Your firm may have its own e-mail server or it may utilize the services of an e-mail server hosted by someone else — such as AOL, Microsoft or its Internet Service Provider. E-mail servers are used to process, store, send and receive e-mail messages. E-mail systems consist of two different servers or server processes. One is called the SMTP server, where SMTP stands for Simple Mail Transfer Protocol. The SMTP server handles outgoing mail. The other is typically either a POP3 server or an IMAP server, both of which handle incoming mail. POP stands for Post Office Protocol, and IMAP stands for Internet Mail Access Protocol. What is an SMTP or outgoing mail server? When you send an e-mail from your e-mail program, the e-mail first arrives at the SMTP (outgoing mail server). The SMTP server will check for the validity of both source and destination e-mail addresses. Then it will send your e-mail to the proper destination. What is a POP3/IMAP or incoming mail server? When someone sends you an e-mail message, it arrives at your POP3 or IMAP server and it waits for you to check your e-mail. When you check your e-mail, your e-mail program accesses the POP3/IMAP server and gives you your waiting messages. Some systems use the POP3 protocol, which allows you to have a collection of messages stored in a text file on the server. Your e-mail client (e.g. Outlook) can connect to your POP3 e-mail server and download the messages from the POP3 text file onto your PC. Others use IMAP, which is a more advanced protocol. With IMAP, your mail stays on the e-mail server. You can organize your mail into folders, and all the folders live on the server as well. This approach makes it extremely easy for you to access your e-mail from any computer and have access to all of your mail in all of your folders. SENDING AND RECEIVING E-MAIL To receive e-mail, you must have an account on a mail server. This is similar to having an address where you receive letters. Once you connect to your mail server, you download your messages to your computer (POP3 server) or, if you have an IMAP server, you read the mail which is stored on the IMAP server. To send e-mail, you need a connection to the Internet and access to a mail server that forwards your mail. When you send an e-mail message, your computer routes it to an SMTP server. The server looks at the e-mail address (similar to the address on an envelope), then forwards it to the recipient’s mail server, where it is stored until the addressee retrieves it. When sending e-mail, just like when sending a letter, you need the correct address. If you use the wrong address or mistype it, your message will bounce back to you. Unlike a letter, which is sealed in an envelope, e-mail is not as private. It is more like a post card. Messages can be intercepted and read by others. Avoid including any confidential information unless you have a way to encrypt it with specialized software, or in the case of a Word or Excel document, password protecting it. INTERNET E-MAIL ADDRESSES Internet e-mail addresses (e.g. [email protected]) typically have two parts. First there is the user name (schechterr) that refers to the recipient’s mailbox. Then there is an “@.” Next comes the host name (gghlaw), also called the domain name. This refers to the mail server, the computer where the recipient has an electronic mailbox. It is usually the name of a company or organization. The end of the domain name consists of a dot “.” followed by three or more letters (such as .com and .gov) that indicate the top-level domain. This part of the domain name typically indicates the type of organization. How do you know if your e-mail message been received and read? Unfortunately, e-mail sent via the Internet does not provide a way to know if a message has arrived at the recipient’s mailbox or has been read. All you can do is assume it arrived and that the recipient opened it. Some (but not all) e-mail servers are capable of sending a confirmation that a message was received and read. Do not rely on a Return Receipt Request feature that may be part of your e-mail client program, particularly when sending mail outside your organization. There are services on the Internet that claim to be able to provide a confirmation that your e-mail message was received and read, but it is not something that is completely reliable. WEB MAIL Web Mail, such as Hotmail, is a popular way to send and receive e-mail using a Web page interface with an Internet browser such as Internet Explorer or Netscape. To use Web Mail, your ISP needs to provide this service or you can subscribe to a Web Mail service (some are free, some are paid).The mail is stored on the Web Mail host computer. Some firms implement Web Mail access on their in-house mail server to enable their users to access mail using a Web browser from any PC outside the firm. Using Web Mail is ideal when traveling or using another person’s computer. THE STEP-BY-STEP PROCESS The following is a simplified step-by-step example of how an e-mail message is sent and received. Sender opens his e-mail program (Outlook) and writes an e-mail message to “[email protected]” Outlook sends the message to Sender’s SMTP server, which places it in its outgoing mail queue. Sender’s message reaches the top of the queue and the message is ready for processing. The SMTP server contacts a DNS server and, using the e-mail address “[email protected],” looks up the actual IP address of Recipient’s SMTP server so it can communicate with that server. What is an IP address? Basically, it’s the numeric identifier of a device on a network. Every server connected to the Internet has an IP address. An example IP address is 216.109.112.135. This is the IP address for a server at www.yahoo.com. If, for some reason, Sender’s SMTP server cannot connect with Recipient’s SMTP server, then the message goes back into the queue. Sender’s SMTP server will periodically try to resend the messages in its queue. For example, it might retry every 15 minutes. After four hours, it will usually send a message that tells you there is some sort of problem. After five days, most systems give up and return the mail to you undelivered. Once contacted, Recipient’s SMTP server authenticates “[email protected]” as a valid e-mail account and Sender’s SMTP server forwards the message addressed to Recipient. The default behavior for an outgoing mail server is to look up the destination host’s IP address and attempt to perform a direct delivery. In real life, a message may be handled by multiple message transfer agents on the way to its destination. At each “hop,” the corresponding system will time-stamp the message and pass it on to the next system as the message works its way to its ultimate destination. This is one reason why there can be a considerable time delay in the receipt of an e-mail message. Once the message is received, Recipient’s SMTP server sends the message to Recipient’s POP3 or IMAP server (as the case may be), where the message waits for Recipient to pick it up. Recipient opens his e-mail program (Outlook), which sends a request to his incoming mail server for any mail, and he receives Sender’s message. TRAVELING THE ‘ELECTRONIC HIGHWAY’ How does a message travel the Net? There are many network elements that are necessary for mail to traverse the Internet, such as routers, switches and a multitude of circuits that bridge systems together and collectively make up the “electronic highway.” E-mail messages and any attachments are broken down into small units of data called packets, which travel independently, making their way along with innumerable other packets traveling to different destinations. It is as if each page of a letter was mailed separately. On the way, the packets are passed from one server to the next until they reach their final destination. Any given message’s packets and attached file may travel by several different routes, so the components often arrive out of order and at different times. Once all the packets have arrived, they are recombined into their original order and form by the destination’s e-mail server. Sending messages in small packets results in the entire message being delivered more quickly because it doesn’t clog the Internet with large bandwidth-consuming chunks of data. It also means that an entire message can be delayed if one packet is delayed or not delivered if one or more packets are lost in transit. The destination mail server places the packets in their original order, according to the instructions contained in each packet, and stores the message in the recipient’s mailbox. The recipient’s client software can then display the message. You sent an e-mail message — it never arrived. Why? E-mail is generally pretty reliable. However, due to the nature of how it is transmitted, there are many points of possible failure which could result in a message not being delivered. Delays in message handling by the file servers on the sender and recipient side are often the cause for mail not being delivered within a reasonable period of time. Sometimes packets are lost in transmission, resulting in the message not being delivered at all. COMMON E-MAIL PROBLEMS Spam. There is no doubt that one of the biggest e-mail problems is spam. Spam can be considered any electronic junk mail that is sent out to thousands, if not millions, of people with an e-mail address. In addition to wasting time with unwanted e-mail, spam also takes up a lot of network bandwidth. Phishing. It is becoming increasingly common to hear about yet another Internet e-mail scam. Phishing is an e-mail scam where a fraudulent e-mail is received and appears to be from a legitimate Internet address with a justifiable request — usually to verify your personal information or account details. One example would be if you received an e-mail that appears to be from your bank requesting you click a hyperlink in the e-mail and verify your online banking information. Usually there will be a consequence stated in the e-mail for not following the link, such as “your account will be suspended.” The sender’s goal is for you to disclose personal and/or account-related information. Now, the next time you send an e-mail, you’ll know exactly how it’s getting to its destination! Roger C. Schechter is the director of technology and of counsel for Grotta, Glassman & Hoffman of Roseland, N.J., which specializes in labor and employment matters on behalf of management.

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