Email has become one of the most effective ways for hackers and other nefarious types to spread viruses, Trojans, and other programs that you don't want on your computer. Sometimes the threat comes in the form of an attachment, and in other cases the message will try to get you to click a URL that will open your machine up to a virus threat. Though programs like McAfee will sometimes spot virus-laden attachments, they don't always catch every one, especially if your virus definitions are out of date (learn how to make sure McAfee is configured properly). You can protect your computer by following a few simple steps:
- Never open attachments you weren't expecting to receive
You've heard that before but it always bears repeating because people continue to open virus-laden attachments. Even if you know the sender of the message, if you weren't expecting the attachment, it's safer to delete the message. There are ways to "spoof" the sender's address, so though it may look like the message was sent by your best friend, that may not be the case!
- Be aware of the "file type" of the attachment
Every Windows file has an extension (usually 3- or 4-digits, like .doc for Word documents, .html for Web pages). Viruses and Trojans often arrive with an extension like .vbs or .scr. If you've received an email saying something like "Check out this PowerPoint file" and attached is a file with an extension of .vbs instead of .ppt, you would be safer to delete the message rather than opening the attachment.
If you don't see file extensions on your computer, click here to find out how to make your computer show them.
- Send and Read messages in Plain Text
Exploits have, in the past, been embedded directly in an email message, usually formatted as an HTML web page. Reading messages in Plain Text ensures that any scripts embedded in the HTML code will not run. And if you're going to read messages in Plain Text, you may want to send messages the same way. Another advantage of dealing with your email as simple text is that messages open faster and are smaller in file size.
- Think Before Clicking an Embedded URL
Sometimes an email message will try to get you to click on an embedded URL that will send you to a web page set up to infect your machine. For this reason you should think twice before clicking a web address that appears in the body of an email message. Use the same caution you would use when dealing with an email attachment. Also, you should be aware that a common trick is to hide the actual URL. The displayed address may look safe enough but could be concealing the real target page. On some systems if you hover over the URL with the cursor without clicking the link the actual URL will displayed at the bottom of the message window.