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Protecting Hotmail and Gmail

By Jean-Claude Elias - Apr 03,2014 - Last updated at Apr 03,2014

In the past month 15 people I know have had their e-mail box hacked or its password stolen and changed. Most have irreversibly lost not only the messages and the contents but worse, their contact list. Some have cried –– literally, real tears –– over it, while others have cursed technology and all that goes with it. 

Now, 15 people attacked is too many in one person’s close circle of friends, family and colleagues, and in just four weeks, what’s more. Imagine the scale of the damage on the population, over time.

In the majority of cases it was a Hotmail mailbox, one of the most vulnerable types of free e-mail accounts, but in other instances it was private domain names with apparently secured mailboxes.

Admitted, some had used childishly unsafe passwords like “123456789”, or their name to which they added their birth date year, or “Amman” followed by their P.O. Box number or area code, all the kinds of passwords that systems usually advise you never to use. Yes, some people still do that!

The fact is that hackers almost always succeed if the set their mind to doing it. If they can get into bank and government server computers, surely they can get to your mailbox. Since last January, mailbox hacking, that old nuisance, has been clearly on the rise.

Whereas there is no absolute protection against hacking, there is one against loss of messages or contact list, and the cure is as old as computers themselves; it’s called backup. And yet… Why aren’t people backing up their mailboxes, somewhere on their local hard disk?

Over the past 10 years or so, two elements have greatly contributed to safeguarding user’s data. The first is awareness. It is now widespread and users from all walks of life, all ages and all professions know that the only way to protect their file from loss is by having multiple copies, on various media, and stored in various locations. The second is the ease of backup. Media is now inexpensive, and automatic backup procedures a breeze to implement, not forgetting that if your data is in the cloud (DropBox, etc.) it is already backed up on multiple devices, without you having to do anything.

Free mailboxes are another story. I’ll just take the example of Hotmail and Gmail, by far the two most popular free e-mail accounts.

There is little chance that these services will lose your e-mail messages or contacts, though it is not completely impossible — it happened before with Gmail but it was a really exceptional case. Under normal circumstances your messages and contact list are backed up by the free service itself, on the multiple servers they are running. What can happen and what seems to be increasingly happening now is that someone cracks your password, stealing everything from you. Once this is done, Hotmail and Gmail won’t be able to do much.

Having contacted Microsoft after the accident, users who had just suffered mailbox hacking and theft have been guided through a complex process of recovery only to be told in the end that it would take 30 days for them to recover their contact list; maybe. 30 days in living with technology is a lifetime and tantamount to complete loss.

Because Hotmail and Gmail are online e-mail services, users forget that they can backup up the contents just like they would back up Word documents, photos or any other file on their local hard disk for that matter. There is more than one method to perform a backup of the above, but the well tested are also easy to apply.

For Hotmail the best is to create an equivalent account in Outlook, on your very computer, in addition to the one you access online from your browser. Since the two are Microsoft products there is full compatibility of contents and functions. Once the contents are in Outlook, you will have a local file on your hard disk, usually named outlook PST and that you can go back to in case the online service is hacked or stolen. It’s like having a duplicate of the online Hotmail on your computer’s hard disk.

For Gmail, there are two nice and easy functions that will give you peace of mind. The first is a little utility, or application that can be found free on the web, it’s simply called Gmail Backup and once downloaded and installed will let you copy all the online contents onto a local file. The second is a contact export utility that runs from within Gmail itself, online, and that will export your Gmail contact list to a local file, in Excel or Excel-equivalent format.

To recap. By using a strong password and by making local copies of Hotmail and Gmail contents, hackers stop being a real threat.

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Monday 22 April 2019


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