If you’ve lost access to your Outlook.com or Hotmail.com account, this is where to start.
As longtime readers know, I get a lot of reports of Hotmail account theft and compromise. As Hotmail has transitioned to Outlook.com, so, too, have the questions. Every day there are reports of everything from simple password loss to email being sent “From” your email address to attempts to scam your contacts.
Depending on exactly what’s happened, the available remedies may be simple, difficult, or completely impossible; your account and everything in it may be lost forever.
I’ll review the various scenarios and direct you to more detailed articles on Ask Leo! that cover the options for each.
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Recovering your Outlook.com account
Email addresses from Hotmail, Outlook.com, Live.com, and more are all Microsoft accounts. If you can’t sign in to your email, there are recovery options available from Microsoft. If you can sign in but suspect a hack, then changing your password is the first step. Some opt to close their problematic accounts. Microsoft offers no free phone or email support but does have an account recovery page with all available options listed.
The Microsoft account
All email accounts issued by Microsoft to the general public are now considered Microsoft accounts, and there is a single website at which to access all of them.
Microsoft-issued email accounts include email addresses @hotmail.com, @outlook.com, @live.com, @msn.com, @webtv.com, and many more.
When used as Microsoft accounts, they’re your primary identification to a variety of online services, including email, OneDrive, and more, as well as (optionally) the login ID for your Windows installation.
To access any of those email accounts, you log in to the outlook.com website with your email address and password.
Unless, of course, you can’t.
Microsoft, Outlook.com, and travel
In recent years, the biggest problem accessing Microsoft accounts by far has been travel-related. The scenario looks like this.
- You have a Microsoft email account you access via outlook.com.
- You have a telephone number associated with that account for recovery purposes.
- You travel overseas.
- When you try to sign in to outlook.com, you’re asked to confirm your identity by entering a code that will be texted to you via SMS on your phone.
- You don’t have your phone, or it’s incapable of receiving texts because you’re traveling.
- You can’t sign in.
It’s a catch-22 situation. You’re asked to jump through additional security hoops because your account is being accessed from an unfamiliar place, but you can’t complete those steps because you’re in an unfamiliar place.
Honestly, unless you have alternate authentication methods, there’s almost nothing you can do when this happens other than wait to access your account when you return home.1
You can prepare for this before your trip, however, by setting up additional authentication methods, including app-based two-factor authentication, recovery codes, or an alternate email address you know you can access while traveling.
I can’t log in!
The next most common scenario is that one day, you simply can’t log in to your account. Be it having forgotten your password or having your account stolen, you just can’t get in.
If you’ve simply forgotten your password but have an alternate email address or other account recovery information configured, then the best approach is outlined in this article: How Do I Change My Hotmail or Outlook.com Password If I Forgot It? That article also includes what to do when you have no recovery information or the recovery information you’ve configured doesn’t work.
You can also visit the Microsoft Account Recovery Page to walk through a process to confirm you are the rightful account holder.
It’s important to realize, however, that if you cannot prove you are the account owner, you will not be given access, and it’s likely you’ve lost the account forever. How Do I Get Into My Hotmail/Outlook.com Account If I Don’t Have the Recovery Phone or Email Anymore? discusses this in more detail.
Other signs of a hack
Not being able to log in is one clue that your email account might have been hacked, but it’s not definitive. Occasionally, hackers do their work in the background in accounts that are still accessible by their owners. Here are two common spams that can signal a hack and one situation that doesn’t.
Spam from you: no
Spoofing is not necessarily a sign of a hack. I list it here because so many people believe it is.
It is very common for someone to get email that looks like it’s from you that you didn’t send. Spammers can spoof the “From:” address. It’s not your fault, your account isn’t really involved, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Someone’s Sending from My Email Address! How Do I Stop Them?! discusses this in more depth.
Spamming your contacts
Occasionally, the first sign of trouble is that your contacts start getting spam from you that you didn’t send. Unlike spoofing, to get your contact list specifically they probably do have access to your account. Someone’s Sending Email that Looks Like It’s From Me to My Contacts, What Can I Do? covers this annoying scenario.
Sometimes they don’t even bother sending email but simply change (or add) the “signature” that’s appended to the bottom of every message you send. Each email you send then includes their spammy message.
The overseas trip scam
Another common hijack has someone hacking into your account and then sending email to all your contacts with a story about how you’ve taken an impulsive trip overseas and are now stranded and in need of money. Someone’s Stolen My Email Account and Is Scamming My Contacts for Money, What Do I Do? discusses this scenario.
Changing your password
A common solution to many account-related problems, and an important step along the road to recovery, is to change your password.
How Do I Change My Hotmail or Outlook.com Password? covers a simple “how to” for Microsoft accounts.
Choosing a good password is critical to maintaining the security of your account. What’s a Good Password? talks about what that means and some of the better approaches to take.
Many people don’t realize that after an account compromise, changing your password is important but it’s not enough. Is Changing My Password Enough? tells why and what additional steps are needed.
Closing your account
Many people react to account problems by wanting to close their accounts immediately. Quite often that isn’t possible; if you can’t prove you’re the account holder by being able to log in, you can’t close the account.
The rest of the time, it’s not necessarily important or even desirable.
How Do I Close My Hotmail or Outlook.com Account? shows how to close your account and addresses the other important question: why bother?
Microsoft offers no phone and extremely limited email support for its free email accounts. Period. There is no phone number for you to call.
Keeping their support costs low is one way they keep the service free. As a result, your direct support options are limited. I discuss them in this article: How Do I Contact Outlook.com Customer Service?
The Microsoft Account Recovery Page mentioned above is one approach to potentially recovering a lost account.
Many people get frustrated at the lack of support, options, and resources when they suffer an account compromise or other problem. That’s understandable, but it’s often not until the worst happens that people realize how unprotected they are.
Are Free Email Services Worth It? discusses some of the pros and cons of free email accounts and talks about some of the ways it’s possible to use one safely.
Given my stance on free email accounts, What For-pay Email Providers Do You Recommend? answers the resulting question.
Finally, by far the most important way to deal with trouble is to avoid it in the first place. What I consider to be the most important article on Ask Leo! — Internet Safety: 7 Steps to Keeping Your Computer Safe on the Internet — is a great place to start.
Footnotes & References
1: In an extreme case, you could contact someone back home to log in to your account for you, but this isn’t advised unless you trust that person completely.