Q. I received e-mail last week telling me I had sent out an undeliverable message, that I sent it to an e-mail address I've never heard...

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I received e-mail last week telling me I had sent out an undeliverable message, that I sent it to an e-mail address I’ve never heard of and that it was blocked because of an executable I’ve never heard of either. In addition, it says the subject of my e-mail was “HELLO,” which I have never used nor ever will (not my style). Are these messages something I need to be worried about? I wasn’t particularly worried after the first one because I’ve never received anything like it before. When I got the second one, I began to think they might possibly be originating from a spammer or hacker who has somehow gotten a hold of my e-mail address and is using it to avoid detection.

I don’t have a firewall, as my computer is more than 4 years old and I still use the original Windows 98, which no one seems to want to bother with. I have on occasion received viruses that my anti-virus software has identified and quarantined, but to my knowledge my computer has never been infected. Do I really need a firewall and will it eliminate this problem?

— Don Zeh

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What’s going on is almost certainly that a spammer is using your address as a return address when he or she sends out spam. When the mail is rejected by a mail server — perhaps because the recipient’s mailbox is no longer active — the notification that the mail is undeliverable goes back to you.

The spammer may have gotten your e-mail address from sources. A Trojan horse virus, for example, may have grabbed your address either from your computer or from someone else’s computer if you’re in that person’s address book.

There’s not much you can do about this except to make sure that your computer is properly protected and to urge others to properly protect their computers. We are, in short, all in this together.

Proper protection means at a minimum having, yes, a firewall and up-to-date antivirus software. And, by the way, using a no-longer-very-popular operating system offers some protection against hackers and virus writers, but not much.

I have recently started seeing an error message every time I start my computer and would like some information on how to correct it. The message has a heading of “16-bit Windows Subsystem.” The text of the message says, “C:\Windows\System32\Auotexec.nt. The system file is not suitable for running MS-DOS and Windows applications. Choose ‘Close’ to terminate the application.” I have been clicking on the ignore button to close the window. When I go to the area indicated I do not find the file there, but do find it in the Repair folder. I have copied it over to the indicated location and it stays there until I shut down for the day. When I reboot the file is missing again.

Is this something I should be concerned about? I am guessing it is just telling me that I can’t run 16-bit applications anymore. I have noticed that one program I used to use for word processing, WordStar, no longer works unless I copy the file over to the System32 folder. I am mainly concerned since the message has just started showing up and I upgraded to Windows XP SP2 several months ago.

— James Spack

Most 16-bit DOS programs should work fine running under Windows XP. But the older the program the more likely there will be incompatibilities.

The most likely cause of your problem, however, is a missing or corrupt Autoexec.nt file.

The exact procedure for replacing this file is kind of complicated. You can find the exact steps by entering the following URL in your Web browser’s address field: support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=kb;en-us;324767.

Questions for Patrick Marshall may be sent by e-mail 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/columnists.