A lost mailbox profile recovered

Rebuilding an Outlook mailbox complete with recreating all of the user's e-mail contacts was a real labor of love.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife had a rather strange problem. For some reason she couldn't receive any e-mail even though her mailbox had been functioning just fine and I hadn't made any changes to her account or to the Exchange Server.

Odder still, any time that she tried to send mail, the mail would just sit in her Outbox rather than actually being sent. To make a long story short, I checked every possible cause of the problem that I could think of, and eventually arrived at the conclusion that her mailbox must be corrupt.

I tried restoring the previous night's backup, but that didn't fix the problem. I remembered that she almost always moves her messages that she wants to keep to a personal folder rather than leaving them on the server. Since most of her messages should have been stored in an alternate location, I deleted her corrupt mailbox. I then created a new mailbox and linked it to her user account.

I was more than a little surprised when I realized that my wife's new mailbox didn't work either. I double-checked all of the possible problems that I had checked for earlier, and all signs still pointed to a corrupt mailbox. Because of this, I deleted her entire user account and then recreated it, creating a brand new mailbox for her in the process. This fixed the problem, but it caused another problem.

Before I had deleted my wife's user account, I had verified that her personal folder was in a location where it would be safe. What I hadn't counted on was that she had a Personal Address Book that I didn't know about. Unfortunately, this Personal Address Book was stored in her My Documents folder, which of course was part of her Windows profile. Since I deleted her user account, the My Documents folder was also deleted. I had not thought to even look in the My Documents folder because my wife normally makes a habit of saving her documents to a different location on my network.

So there I was with a functional mailbox, but my wife was wondering whatever happened to her old messages and to her contacts. Getting the messages back was the easy part. I just used the Open | Outlook Data File commands found in Outlook's File menu to re-link Outlook to my wife's PST file. I then chose the E-Mail Accounts command from Outlook's Tools menu and chose the option to View or Change an Existing E-Mail Account. This caused Outlook to display her e-mail account settings.

More importantly, though, this dialog box contained an option that lets you determine where new messages should be delivered to. I configured Outlook so that new messages should be delivered to my wife's PST file. A few cosmetic changes later and her mail was all back, but she still wanted to know where her contacts were.

I knew that the chances of being able to recover the Contacts folder were slim because it had existed within a local profile that had been deleted. I tried using file recovery software on her workstation to get it back, and also checked the nightly backup in the off chance that perhaps a copy could have existed in an old network profile, but there was no such luck. Being that I wasn't dealing with an ordinary user, I wasn't about to tell her that her contacts were lost forever and that she would have to deal with it. I had to come up with a way of rebuilding her contacts from scratch.

My solution was to go through her Sent Items folder and look at every message. By doing so, I was able to get the e-mail messages for everyone that she normally writes to, and was able to create her a new Personal Address Book. I also found a few addresses in messages in her Inbox and even in her Deleted Items folder. A few of the messages even contained phone numbers, which I was also able to add to her Personal Address Book.

In the end, I was able to use this technique to recreate an entry for everyone who had previously existed within her Personal Address Book. This worked great for e-mail addresses, but I had to get most of the phone numbers from her cell phone. She also ended up having to look up most of the people's addresses on the Internet or call the people to get their addresses.

In the end, I was able to completely recreate all of the lost data.

Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server and IIS. Brien has served as the CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. As a freelance technical writer he has written for Microsoft, CNET, ZDNet, Tech Target, MSD2D, Relevant Technologies, and numerous other technology companies. You can visit Brien's personal Web sites at http://www.brienposey.com and http://www.relevanttechnologies.com.

This was first published in March 2004
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