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 related articles on Ask Leo! that cover the options for each.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
The Microsoft account
One of the changes in recent years is that 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 10 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 account 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 any More? 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.
Spam from you: no
This 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 actually involved, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Someone’s Sending from My Email Address! How Do I Stop Them?! discusses it in more depth.
Spamming your contacts
Occasionally, the first sign of trouble is that your contacts start getting emails from you that you didn’t send that look very much like spam. 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 the “signature” that’s appended to the bottom of every message you send. Each email you send then includes their spammy message. Why Do Messages I Compose in Hotmail Now Start with an Ad that Looks Like It’s From Me? provides an easy fix.
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 scam and what you need to do.
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.
What many people don’t realize is that after an account compromise, changing your password is important, but not nearly enough. Is Changing My Password Enough? shows you why, and what additional steps are needed.
Closing your account
Many people react to account problems by wanting to close their account 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 or 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.
If you found this article helpful, I'm sure you'll also love Confident Computing! My weekly email newsletter is full of articles that help you solve problems, stay safe, and give you more confidence with technology. Subscribe now and I'll see you there soon,
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.