My mail account has a virus, how do I get rid of it?

Email accounts don't get viruses. Depending on what you're seeing, though there is something that email accounts do get, and that is: hacked.

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My MSN email account has a virus and I can’t seem to get any help via MSN to get rid of it…this is why I feel that I must close it. Do you have suggestions for how I might get help with the infection and keep my account or should I do as you suggest and just stop using it?

I believe you’re heading off in the wrong direction.

Yes, if you want to close your account then absolutely stop using it.

But the question actually shows a very common misunderstanding of what’s probably really going on.

You see … email accounts don’t get viruses.

Email & Viruses

Email accounts do not get infected with viruses. They may carry viruses as payloads in email messages, but viruses to not affect the email account itself.

Viruses infect computers, not accounts.

I can hear a bunch of people immediately saying “well, then MSN / Hotmail / Windows Live has a virus on their computers!

It didn’t take a virus to do this.

No.

While it’s theoretically possible, it’s so incredibly rare compared to other possibilities that it’s honestly not worthy wasting a moment even thinking about. Besides, if they did they’d be all over it and would resolve it extremely rapidly.

So, then, where’s the virus?

There probably isn’t one.

Email & Hackers

Emails Hacked!You didn’t indicate what leads you to believe that your email account has a virus, however if you’re situation is like any of the hundreds of reports I see every week, it’s very simple:

Someone is sending email from your account, probably to email addresses that are in the contact list or address book of that account.

That’s no virus. That’s a hack.

Someone has gained access to your email account and is sending email from it.

Someone guessed your password, or stole it somehow to login to your email account. They may not even have changed the password, which means you could be logging in normally while all this is happening unaware that there’s a problem at all, until your friends start complaining.

It didn’t take virus to do this.

It just took lax password security like an easy-to-guess password, or logging in to your email without using encryption at an open WiFi hotspot, perhaps trusting someone you shouldn’t have, or …

OK, there’s one scenario where malware could be involved: you could have a key logger installed on your machine, or you used a machine (typically a public machine) that has a key logger installed.

Email “From” You, but Not

I want to be clear that there are a couple of scenarios where email comes “From” you when it’s not really from you:

  1. “From:” Spoofing: The email address in the From field is faked to look like it comes from you, but it has not. In fact you had nothing at all to do with it. Unfortunately, since you had nothing to do with it, there’s nothing you can do. Spammers have been using this technique for years.
  2. Account Hack: As described above, someone has actually gained access to your email account and is using it to send email. It looks like it’s from you because it really is from your account. Again, no virus, just a simple case of an account being hacked into.

While as I said the first case has been going on for years, I’ve seen a significant increase in the number of people who’s accounts are getting broken into.

What To Do

This is where it gets ugly.

If you still have access to the account, then rather than closing it you should immediately change your password and every other bit of information stored as part of the account that could be used as account password recovery information by the hackers. You must assume that the hackers will have read all of that and perhaps changed some of it and that they are prepared to perform an account recovery to re-hack your account at any time. More on this here: Is changing my password enough?

If you don’t have access to your account then your options are seriously limited. For example, you need to have access to your account before you can close it, so you can’t simply close it. You’d need to regain access, at which point you should do what I just suggested: change all the information in it.

Regaining access to the account is often difficult to impossible. The section on “Losing and Regaining Account Access” in What are my Lost Hotmail Account and Password Recovery Options? details what options you have.

If you can’t regain access to your account, then I suggest you simply move on:

  • Create a new account
  • Use a strong password
  • Tell all your friends, business relationships and newsletter subscriptions your new email address
  • Think carefully about how your account could have been hacked, so that you don’t let it happen again.

And, sure, an up-to-date anti-virus and anti-spyware scan of your own machine(s) wouldn’t hurt.

In fact, refreshing yourself on how to stay safe on the internet might be a good idea as well.

There are 14 comments:

  1. Ed Lieber Reply

    Leo:
    I use MSN Hotmail for my main email account (the one I used in this comment)I have found that over the past several months the Hot Mail system has become very slow and non responsive. I have complained to them and they have denied any problem but the system miraculously speeds up for a short time after each complaint, only to slow down again a few days later. I have recently downloaded Internet Explorer 9 Beta and I now find that the editing function in Hot Mail is messed up. Back spacing to correct a typo when composing an email causes the display to become unreadable until the correction is completed. Microsoft needs to get their act together fast, Yahoo, Google and AOl are all doing a much better job on handling web based email. thnaks for listening and for all the great advice.

    Ed Lieber

  2. BigJohnT Reply

    What do you expect? A Beta is a Beta. It is not meant for anything but test purposes. You should not even run it on your main computer unless it is in a VM. No problems you have can be blamed on Microsot. Did you read the EULA and release notes?
    There are many warnings to that effect.
    Read all Eula’s and notes, ALWAYS on all software.
    That goes for you people that download some file and end up with a bunch of crappy BHO’s and high-jacked home pages, etc. YOU allowed these things to happen by not paying attention.

  3. Jacob Reply

    Great response. I would like to add that the user should run a full virus scan of their computer using more then one security client to ensure that their own computer has not become a bot or is hacked. While the e-mail account may be the only account hacked your computer may also be infected and that is how they got your password in the first place.

  4. Alex Dow Reply

    As well as running a full virus check and also ensuring the firewall is working, I suggest that a security check such as “ShieldsUP!” should be included.

    Additionally, I run the ancient CHKLINKS daily whilst having breakfast. Although less necessary on later, faster computers, it can be helpful in ensuring that Broken Links are not accumulating.

    Reboot your ADSL/Broadband Router occasionally, say once a month.

    Take a good look at old emails accumulating in your account or on your PC. Get rid of the majority.

    Always run down and switch off “gracefully” – be patient and keep your fingers away from the On/Off Switch.

    In other words, there are several “housekeeping” tasks that the individual PC User can and should carry out, to keep the PC running smoothly and quickly.

    The individual PC User now has to undertake many of the “housekeeping” tasks that were carried out by the Computing Department, back in the good old days of main frames etc.

    Alex Dow

  5. Darrel Riffle Reply

    I would like to add a WARNING on here to this. 4 of us in the household use hotmail, or windows live. My mom gets an email that says windows live is having problems with spammers and fake accounts, and wants her to fill in her name, username, password and reply back via email. It ALMOST looks legit, until you hit reply. Suddenly it is redirected to a {removed by moderator}@hotmail.com. There is no way to report this to msn, hotmail, or windows live, so all I can do is spread the word-WATCH OUT. The other 3 of us did not get this same email-so we knew it was a hoax right away

  6. Dennis Reply

    Darrel Riffle
    The giveaway should have been “password”. What on earth does anyone but you need your password for? THINK! What do you need your password for? To log into your account. If you want any one else to log into your account, give ‘em your password. Otherwise, never, never never give out your password.

  7. sirpaul1 Reply

    I’m an administrator on several web site forums and I’ve always found it ironic that computer users don’t do any homework until after the fact (problem). Typical problem: “My computer has been clicking for about 2 months and now it won’t boot”
    Proactive trumps reactive every time. At least, do a little research! You would have found out that Hotmail is the most hacked e-mail service (and for that fact makes a great disposable e-mail address).
    Change your profile info every month or two with Hotmail and Yahoo mail. G-mail, not so often. Maybe every 3-4 months.

  8. dorleen Reply

    I was filling out for something on the computer and when I started to put my email address a completly different email came up for some one I didn’t know. What does this mean and what should I do?

  9. Mark J Reply

    @Dorleen
    Most browsers have an autocomplete feature that “guesses” what you want by giving a dropdown list of all of the email addresses you’ve previously typed in an email field that begin with those letters you’ve typed. If there is only one option on that list it may insert it directly in that field. In that case just keep typing and the options will disappear. This not only works for email addresses but many other fields, such as name, address etc.

  10. Karen Reply

    Read the comments concerning mail account having a virus and I realize that email accounts do not get a virus but a computer does. My problem is a little different, no one has hacked into my email and sent things to my addresses. What has happened is that in my “Inbox” mail, sent mail, stored messages and some subfolders, all messages have been duplicated at least 2 times. Some messages have replicated 3 times. I have Windows XP on this computer, I don’t know what to do. I have deleted 200 emails from a total of 500 only weeks later to find they are back and replicated yet again to total 500 (just an example #). If anyone can help, I would appreciate it…. :)

  11. Christina Visser Reply

    Hi i having problems people sending my emails i must stop sending rubbish, but i dont know what they talking about because in the first place i neva sending them any messages whatsoever. What is the problem and how can i solve this problem

  12. Michelle Reply

    Hi, this has been going on for about two weeks actually, i can still log on my windows live Account but when i do i cant send any instant messages to anybody but i can recieve theirs. i cant even send emails to them they will never recieve them. they are also able to log in my msn while im logged in and it wont log me out. Ive tried resetting the password and change the security password. I dont know what to do, please help, what should i do? I dont want to close my account.

  13. mmmm Reply

    this annoying pedant could have answered the question in 3 bloody sentences and he knows it: “The email address in the From field is faked to look like it comes from you, but it has not. In fact you had nothing at all to do with it. Unfortunately, since you had nothing to do with it, there’s nothing you can do. Spammers have been using this technique for years.”
    that was what the person was after

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