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Issue #495: January 15-21, 2017

Q: Recently two problems have cropped up on my home computer. The first is on Outlook, where I have both a Cox account and a work account linked. I frequently see my Cox folders collapsed, and when I click to get at my inbox, I get a message that says cannot open… is in use and cannot be accessed.

 Similarly I now sometimes get a message when I run Quicken and try to back up a file that says “Quicken cannot open the date file because it is in use by another application.”

 Any ideas what is going on?

– Fred M.
Niceville, Florida

A:  Actually, no, I don’t.  From your description, I can’t tell what is going on any more than you can.  However, I can help you find out.

You’re starting with the assumption that the only things on your system that would access these files (much less lock them for exclusive access) are the applications that you normally associate with them; in this case, Outlook for the .pst file and Quicken for the date file.  However, there are multiple things on a Windows PC that might be accessing the files, which means there are multiple possible remedies for the issue.  Exactly what must be done depends on what is taking hold of your files.

Fortunately, I’ve got a wonderfully Geeky way to determine exactly what process is using any file on your system.  It’s called Process Explorer, and it is part of Windows SysInternals, which is an advanced suite of system utilities and technical information that is used to troubleshoot and diagnose problems on Windows PCs.

Start by visiting and download Process Explorer.  Extract the contents of the .zip file to a directory of your choosing.  Right-click on one of the two .exe files – procexp.exe if your PC has 32-bit architecture, or procexp64.exe if it’s 64-bit.  From the context menu, select “Run as administrator” and be prepared to provide credentials for an administrator account if your account is a regular user account.  From within Process Explorer, click the “Find” menu and select “Find a Handle or DLL”.  In the search dialog that opens, type in the name, or even a partial name of the locked file, and click “Search”.  The list in the lower part of the dialog will be populated with a list of all the processes that have files open that match your search criteria.  If the actual application or DLL name that’s shown in the Search dialog isn’t enough to tip you off as to exactly what has your file locked, you can click on entries in the list, and Process Explorer will highlight the corresponding process in its main window.  This display contains slightly more information about the process, and if you double-click it, it brings up a dialog box that contains everything the system knows about the process.

Now, this isn’t a full cure.  Once you know what’s locking a file, you still have to act on that knowledge.  I suspect you’re going to discover that it’s your system’s anti-virus software, a file back-up application, or perhaps even a malware infection.  If it’s malware, it can be removed with a good anti-malware program.  If it’s something else, it may require a bit more legwork to find out why it’s got exclusive access to a file at the same moment you’re trying to access it.

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