Email is a convenient and popular means for communicating with colleagues, friends, and family. Because of its convenience and popularity, it is easy to become complacent with email and forget to follow basic safety rules.
Remember, email is not private. It can be intercepted, altered, and used to carry out various types of crimes, including collecting your personal information. You can avoid becoming a victim by protecting yourself against two common threats to email security: viruses and spam.
An email virus is a computer program or piece of computer code that is sent as an email attachment. The virus activates when the attachment is opened.
A virus can destroy files on your hard drive and re-mail itself to everyone in your address book. In the U.S., viruses such as the Melissa and ILOVEYOU viruses have caused millions of dollars of damage to companies, governments, mail servers, and banking systems in the years 2000 and 2002, respectively.
Signs of a virus attack include the following: appearance of unusual error messages, your computer may slow down, crash, or even restart every few minutes. Your two best defenses against these types of viruses include: (1) use up-to-date antivirus software, and (2) do not open email attachments unless you know who they are from and what they contain.
Spam is the electronic version of junk mail. These are the unwanted, unsolicited, and annoying messages that appear in your email inbox. It is estimated that the amount of spam has increased by 80% within the past few years.
Spam messages typically offer either dubious products or fraudulent services. You can distinguish spam messages from real messages by looking for the following elements:
- Generic greetings (e.g., "Dear Valued Customer")
- Grammar and spelling errors
- Awkward non-native use of English (e.g., "I would like to firstly send to you...")
- The message asks for personal information (e.g., verify your banking information)
Do not reply to a spam message asking to be removed from the mailing list. This only verifies to the spammer that your email address is valid, and guarantees that you will receive even more spam. And equally important, do not “reply all” to the spam message. Everyone that received the spam is just as frustrated as you are, and you will only compound the frustration.