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Originally published Friday, July 6, 2012 at 12:01 PM

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Was Hotmail account hacked? Was this a scam?

As a rule, if you're looking for tech support, go straight to the source.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Q: My email account was down for a couple weeks, probably because I messed up the password. I tried several times to unblock the account, to no avail. So I Googled "Hotmail tech support" and several phone numbers came up.

I called one and an Indian-sounding guy took control of my PC. He determined it was infected and that something like 80,000 inappropriate hits had been made. The main culprit he claimed was a file called "csrss.exe" and that my IP address had been hacked. He went into quite a bit of detail explaining the IP address and what it did. Then he said that for $99.99 I could protect all of my computers for their lifetime.

At this point a red flag went up and I asked if he was affiliated with Microsoft. He said he was Microsoft-certified. I told him I was surprised that I was being asked to pay for additional protection, that I would think about it and call him back.

Next I called CenturyLink tech support and they explained the IP address is changed every time I unplug my modem. We did that and installed Norton at no cost off the CenturyLink site. I've run this and the only things that came up as problems were a bunch of cookies.

I still don't know if my PC was really infected or not. What do you think?

— Steve Franz

A: I can't say for sure that you were being scammed. But there are definitely a lot of scams out there, and many of them work pretty much the way you describe. You were, in short, right to be concerned.

As a rule, if you're looking for tech support go straight to the source. If the problem is with Hotmail, go to Microsoft. And even more importantly, don't let any remote site take control of your computer unless you trust them.

Csrss.exe, by the way, is the name of a legitimate Windows file. But that doesn't mean it hasn't been infected.

Q: I run XP on a 4-year-old Lenovo laptop and I use Comcast Xfinity for email. My email also shows up in Outlook, and when a large volume builds up in Outlook, it slows down my computer. But when I delete old email from Outlook it also disappears from Xfinity. Can you help?

— Jim White,

Lake Forest Park

A: No problem. In Outlook, go to the File menu and select Info. Next click on Account Settings. When your account entry pops up, double-click on it and then click on the More Settings button. In the dialogue box that appears, click on the Advanced tab. Finally, check the box that says "Leave a copy of messages on server."

Q: ZuniDigital's ZuniConnect Travel Router, mentioned in an earlier column, looked like just what I needed and the price (can be purchased for around $35) fit my needs. I was going to order one, then the "Note" in your June 30th column raised some concerns. The Zuni can encrypt data and has dual firewalls, so if used in that mode am I "safe" on an unsecured access point using passwords, sending personal information and checking email?

— Gordon

A: Safety is always a relative thing. The firewalls will certainly help protect your computer from hackers. And yes, the ZuniConnect has encryption. But it can only use that encryption if it is supported by the Wi-Fi network you're connecting to the Internet through. So if the hot spot isn't encrypted your transmitted data can be captured.

The only way to avoid that is through use of a VPN, or virtual private network. To set up a VPN, your computer and the website to which you want to connect have to both have the VPN software and you configure a connection on both ends. Once that connection is established, encrypted data can sent from either side and it isn't decrypted until it is received on the other end.

Questions for Patrick Marshall may be sent by email to pmarshall@seattletimes.com or pgmarshall@pgmarshall.net, or by mail at Q&A/Technology, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/

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