Internet Tips: Master Outlook's Bizarre Addressing Mysteries

When I start to type a name in the 'To:' field of a new Outlook e-mail message, the program completes the name and corresponding e-mail address. As my contacts' e-mail addresses change, I update them in Outlook's Contacts area. However, I recently encountered several instances where Outlook's autocomplete feature supplied an out-of-date e-mail address, long deleted from my contacts.

To try to clear out these bad addresses, I exported my contacts file, deleted all the outdated contacts from the Contacts folder, and removed the Outlook Address Book. But now when I start to type a name in the 'To:' field, it still finds those old names!

John A. Anderson, Wyoming, Ohio

Those phantom e-mail addresses drove me crazy, too. Over time, however, I realized that Outlook 2002 was keeping track of people I corresponded with, though not through its normal Address Book.

After poking around on Microsoft's support site, I found several articles that reveal the secret: Outlook 2002 and 2003 automatically store every address you enter--including addresses you look up in Outlook's Contacts--in a hidden file.

This behavior has good and bad points. On the good side, Outlook remembers addresses you've used in the past, even if you never store them as Contacts; and you can retrieve them by typing only the first few characters. The bad points, however, go on and on. The worst is that as you update Outlook's Contacts, the autocomplete name cache file remains static. So even though your cousin Jethro's address has changed three times in the last year, the one Outlook suggests when you start typing Jethro in the 'To:' field will be ancient.

A Microsoft Design Flaw?

And in typical Microsoft fashion, there is no way to edit the file, since it isn't written in plain text. Regrettably, it contains enough plain text--the addresses and corresponding names--to get you in trouble with a snooping spouse or employer who knows how to find and open it.

The problems continue. Outlook stores up to 1000 entries in this hidden name cache, and the entire cache is loaded into memory each time you launch Outlook. According to Microsoft's Knowledge Base, the lookup feature slows noticeably when the cache reaches 1000 names. The company notes in another article that if the name cache file becomes corrupted, Outlook may start sending mail to another autocomplete entry's address. So what can you do?

There's no easy solution to this cache conundrum--the feature is just plain designed wrong. Nevertheless, you can delete entries from the file one at a time in certain instances. To accomplish this, click the New button to open a new message, type the first three characters of the cached name into the 'To:' field to trigger the autocomplete feature, press the Down Arrow key to highlight the offending cached name, and then press Delete to remove it (see FIGURE 1

FIGURE 1: Weed out old addresses that pop up due to a bad autocomplete feature.

Unfortunately, this works only if more than one cached name begins with the first three letters, triggering the drop-down list. Microsoft provides a workaround for this problem, but instead I recommend simply jettisoning the whole file.

To locate the file in Windows XP, click Start, Search, select More advanced options, choose All files and folders in the 'Type of file' drop-down list, and check Search hidden files and folders. Type *.nk2 in the 'All or part of the file name' field, and click Search. At its site, Microsoft provides specific instructions for earlier versions of Windows (which require additional steps to find hidden files). Once you've located the file, either delete or rename it. However, Outlook will simply start a new one for you, so be prepared to repeat this process later.

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