NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article
Basic E-mail Safety and Etiquette
by Dale Oliver, President, July 2001
(click to email author)

The mindset of the typical personal computer user regarding safety-related issues has gone from, "It can't happen to me!" to, "I wonder when it will happen?" Although paranoia isn't necessarily a good thing, a frank acceptance of the risks of online computing is.

If you are connected to the Internet--especially with a broadband connection--you will definitely want to have some security measures in place, such as Zone Labs' ZoneAlarm. This Internet security software is a jewel, and it is available free to individuals for non-commercial use from www.zonelabs.com. In addition to keeping you safe from snoops and hackers while you are connected to the Internet, two of the most popular virus detection and cleaning software products are Norton Antivirus www.symantec.com and McAfee VirusScan www.mcafee.com.

Even though computer security and virus software exists to save us from ourselves, there are some very simple and easy things that we can do every day to protect us, our friends, our family and colleagues from needless security risks. Hey, just because your car has airbags doesn't mean you can stop using the steering wheel!

Here are some simple pointers to take a substantial amount of risk out of your online computing activities, especially the growing e-mail related risks:

Just because you recognize the sender, it doesn't mean the e-mail is safe. Many newer viruses and e-mail worms spread like wildfire through e-mail. Once they are run on an unsuspecting person's computer, a worm will promptly mass-mail itself everyone in the e-mail address book. Sometimes it will send replies to existing e-mail messages in your inbox. Sometimes it will create a new e-mail message with a subject line something like, "Check out this great new (fill in the blank) I just downloaded!" If you get an e-mail from a friend that seems suspicious, especially if it has any kind of file attachment, don't open the e-mail. Telephone that person and ask if they really sent the e-mail to you. If you get a suspicious e- mail message from someone you don't even know, delete it before you even open it.

Don't continually put your friends, family and colleagues at risk. Many unsuspecting users do this every day by sending their friends, family and colleagues' e-mail addresses all over the Internet. If you send an e-mail message to multiple recipients, for Pete's sake, don't simply CC the message to everyone. Use the BCC (blind carbon copy) option instead. Simply CC'ing the message does a number of bad things: (1) It creates larger e-mails because of the additional text included with all of the addresses displayed. (2) It clogs up e-mail servers and inboxes with bloated e-mails that take longer to download and more disk space to store due to the needless additional information. (3) It annoys people on the receiving end, especially if they get an e-mail that has been forwarded this way many times, which requires the recipient to scroll through reams of e-mail addresses in order to finally get to the message. (4) It's a wonderful "sucker list" source for potential hackers and miscreants who now have a growing list of potential targets to send their viruses and worms to.

Don't click on Internet links in unwanted or suspicious e-mails. Even (especially) if the e-mail says something to the tune of, "click here to be removed from our obnoxious e-mailing list that you didn't want to be part of in the first place." OK, so I'm being sarcastic. Still, this type of link can be a ploy to find out the "live" e-mail addresses from the "dead" ones in a mass-mailing campaign. No reply may mean that a particular e-mail address is no longer used or no longer exists. A reply, however, tells the sender that they have a live one on the hook. Why take the bait?

Sometimes a file attachment isn't what you think it is. Sometimes, despite all your best efforts, you will still get stung. You're a moderately informed computer user. You run anti-virus software and keep it updated. You use an Internet security software such as ZoneAlarm. You utilize BCC when sending e-mails to multiple recipients. You strip out superfluous e-mail addresses before forwarding messages. You telephone someone if you are wary of an e-mail attachment before downloading or running it. By doing these things, you have removed about ninety-nine percent of the chance of becoming a victim. But there's still the chance you could get stung now and then.

Here's an example: Let's say you telephoned Bob after receiving a suspicious e-mail from him, and you said, "Hey Bob, I just got an e-mail from you with an attachment that is supposed to be some kind of New Year's Eve fireworks display. Did you really send this?" Bob says, "Yes, I sent it. It's really cool. Run it and see for yourself." You did your part, expended a minimal amount of time and effort to verify the file was sent legitimately, so you think you're safe. But what you don't know is that Bob infected his computer with a virus or e-mail worm when he ran the attached file, and he doesn't even know it yet. Oops. In the words of Billy Crystal, "I *hate* it when that happens!" All you can do at this point is fire up your virus software and get rid of that annoyance before it turns into a real problem.

Long story short: Implementing the simple but effective strategies in this article can help you and your friends avert most of the problems related to e-mailing, allowing you to have a safer and more enjoyable online computing experience.

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