Shauna London doesn't own a computer or pay for an Internet connection. Yet the 22-year-old nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital manages to keep up a lively e-mail correspondence with dozens of friends and relatives. Her secret: a free e-mail account with Yahoo!
Since it was introduced in 1996, "freemail" has become one of the hottest draws on the World Wide Web, giving anyone with access to a browser -- at work, at school, in a library or a friend's home -- the means to send and receive electronic messages.
Standing at a computer kiosk in the Enoch Pratt Free Library last week, London tapped out a chatty e-mail to a former classmate from George Washington University as nearby patrons quietly searched the online card catalog.
"Sometimes the librarian will come around and say, 'How long have you been here?' " said London, who drops by three or four times a week to check her mail.
A dozen services such as Yahoo! Mail, AOL NetMail and USA Net have sprung up to handle the millions of users who, like London, want freemail accounts. The service has become a key feature for mammoth Web portals such as Yahoo! trying to attract eyeballs and keep them around.
But hundreds of smaller Web sites are also offering free e-mail these days, tapping larger providers such as USA Net to supply the service. Look around and you'll find Mauimail.com for Hawaii lovers, Jewishmail.com from the Jewish Communications Network, and Doramail.com for fans of the Japanese cartoon character Doraemon.
So many people have grown dependent on free e-mail that when Microsoft's popular Hotmail (with 40 million subscribers) sprang a security leak last month, it made headlines across the country.
The best free e-mail services do almost everything a dial-up account can do: provide a password-protected mailbox, send attachments, filter junk mail and even check your spelling.
Of course, there's a catch. While freemail services don't expect cash, they do want personal information, such as your name, age and address. These sites make their money by selling advertising, and they use your personal data to target the online billboards that bombard you when you log on to read your mail.
This apparently doesn't bother the millions who use freemail, and even if you already have an e-mail account through a dial-up service such as Earthlink or your company, you may want to consider adding a free, Web-based account.
The main advantage of freemail is that you can read your messages from almost any computer connected to the Internet; many services also allow users to check their dial-up e-mail accounts through the Web. Either way, it's a boon for travelers and corporate road warriors.
On a vacation to Israel last year, Sheila Thaler used her Yahoo! account to check in with her son in San Francisco, who had promised to keep an eye on her elderly mother.
During the three-week trip, Thaler searched for cybercafes and tony hotels where she could schmooze her way onto a PC. "It was hard work," recalls the Mount Washington social worker. But in the end her hunt paid off: She was able to connect with her son three or four times.
Freemail has other advantages. It offers an easy way to keep touchy correspondence -- job-hunting letters, love notes and other items you don't want the boss to see -- out of your corporate e-mail system. A freemail account is also a perfect way for people who subscribe to online mailing lists or newsgroups to avoid cluttering up their personal mailboxes or giving their address to strangers.
But freemail is far from perfect. In the most recent flap, hackers set up Web pages that showed outsiders how to access any Hotmail account without a password, until Microsoft plugged the hole. Other high-profile providers including USA Net have suffered embarrassing security lapses and outages, sometimes lasting for days.
Most free e-mail providers also limit the amount of e-mail you can store online -- typically no more than 5 megabytes. While that's enough for hundreds of short messages, it may cramp your style if you like to swap fat file attachments such as digital photos or MP3 music files.
Another potential hazard: Most providers pull the plug on your freemail account if you don't use it for a month or two, or if you break the site's terms-of-service agreement by, for example, using the account to send junk e-mail.
Harry McCracken, a PC World senior writer, recalls a letter from a freemail user who logged onto her online mailbox one day and discovered that her account had been shut down and all her mail deleted -- much of it critical.
"Because they're free, these accounts are given to you at the whim of the provider," McCracken cautioned. "And the fine print that you didn't read allows them to take it away at any time." His advice: If something important comes in, print it out or cut and paste its contents into a document.