E-Mail Mayhem


The other day I was called to solve a problem with a neighbour's computer.

The complaint was that whenever a particular E-mail message was selected in the Inbox the computer froze.

This happened when an attempt was made to read it or if it was right clicked for deletion.

It wouldn't read or delete and to get the machine running necessitated switching it off and on.

The obvious thought was a virus although the owner of the computer was running Norton Anti-Virus and from the evidence available this had been updated via the Internet quite recently.

I thought that I'd delete the relevant files so I did a "find files" dated on the same day the E-Mail had been received.

There were dozens and dozens of files, most of which looked peculiar.

About forty or fifty had zero length and were in a folder whose name was related to the rogue E-mail. I deleted these together with all the other files in that folder. From the names of the files it was apparent that the sender had had some problems sending his message as these had been tagged with sequential numbers in brackets.

When all the rogue files had been deleted I went back into Outlook Express and found to my dismay that the machine still froze when the message was selected.

During the next few minutes the machine suddenly failed to boot up, initially making a long succession of bleeps before finally failing to come on. At this point I gave up, after noticing the hard drive wasn't in the CMOS general information page, and we took the computer back to my workshop for analysis the next morning

In the morning I tried to work out why it wouldn't come to life. Was it the memory which had for some reason inexplicably failed? The owners had said the machine had been a nuisance previously and both the hard drive and the motherboard had been replaced under warranty by PC World. I had in mind to swap the DIMMs or to attempt to slave the hard drive to another machine, but as both options were messy and would lead to complications, I opened the computer and looked inside for inspiration. It was a Pentium III 933 Slot I with the latest IDE cable. With a light shining inside I noticed the CMOS reset jumper. With tongue in cheek I set the link to erase, waited a moment then put it back to normal. Switching on produced a healthy hard drive diagnostic rattle and the monitor lamp changed from orange to green. So far so good!

I let the thing finish booting up and looked at Outlook Express. There was the rogue message. Above it was the first in the queue and below it a third E-mail. I deleted the first message and the computer locked up. Of course the first message was now the rogue and it had been automatically selected. Now I couldn't access Outlook Express!

I rebooted and for good measure set the BIOS information to sensible values as originally it hadn't been set up beyond the default values and of course it now had basic setup details since the hard reset.

The next step was fairly obvious really. I located the E-Mail Inbox file "inbox.dbx", if my memory serves me well, and renamed it.

Now when I opened Outlook Express a new inbox was selected...without the rogue message.

With some trepidation I renamed the old inbox as a .DOC and looked at it with Word. The thing was very large and as I scanned down the mixture of machine code and plain language I spotted a sentence which went something like this...

"I had trouble sending you this E-mail. AOL wanted to ZIP it up and I didn't want to let it. I managed to get round it by using a fiddle and it eventually went off OK"

Clearly the sender had inadvertently during his efforts made a new type of virus. That is if you define a virus as something wrecking a computer as this had decidedly done! Presumably what he'd done was to trigger a bug buried in Outlook Express so that data he'd sent had been executed as code, freezing the machine when its operating system had been corrupted. Not only that but the BIOS had been affected too causing the computer to completely expire!

Who is to blame? AOL for transmitting an invalid E-Mail, Microsoft for writing duff code allowing an E-Mail to crash the computer uncontrollably, or the sender for not following normal procedures? Maybe the blame should be shared?

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