Thursday, July 1, 2010

Diagnosing corrupted email headers


By David Gewirtz

Reader Jiri Pik sent us an interesting question about how to troubleshoot corrupted email messages:

In the last week, I found that some of the emails I sent to myself from work were lost (i.e. not delivered), and some of the emails sent to account abc\ (received in the Bat! Email client) were delivered to xyz\ (received in Outlook 2010). See the corrupted header and no from and to. What do you think the cause is?
Could the problem be with Norton Internet Security which is proxying the pop3? How would you troubleshoot?

Jiri also provided us with a screenshot, shown in Figure A.


The headers aren't what they're supposed to be. (click for larger image)

Troubleshooting is usually a matter of process of elimination. If you think about that phrase, the keywords are "process" and "elimination". Whenever we try to solve a problem like this, we think through how we're going to go about it (the process) and what variables we can remove from the equation (elimination).

In your case, you identified an obvious variable: Norton Internet Security. One easy test would be to turn off NIS and then download your email. See if there's a change in the headers and the delivery patterns. If so, then NIS is probably either the culprit, or at least part of the problem.

We maintain a number of outside test accounts, including diagnostic email accounts at Yahoo, Hotmail (Live mail) and Gmail. The purpose of these accounts is they allow us to send email into our servers and see whether something is corrupted coming from a controlled environment. The reverse is also true -- we can send mail out, and see what it looks like when it gets there.

We use all three services because there are different response times and different paths, and it helps in diagnosis to compare.

In your case, try sending email into your account from, say, Gmail and see if you have a similar problem.

There's one other issue in this: the server. You didn't provide us any information about what your mail server is, whether its under your control, or any details. There's a lot that could be going on at the server level and your corruption problem could be happening there. Since we don't have any information, that's a knowledge deficit that'll remain unfilled.

Good luck!