Practice e-mail safety

Michael Ford
Spammed —  The graph above represents the total percentage of spam gathered by @Mail, a WebMail Server for Linux, Unix and Windows.

   E-mail profoundly revolutionized communication, by providing people around the globe a convenient way to keep in touch. However, using e-mail without taking proper precautions may render unwanted results, such as spam, viruses or even a destroyed hard drive.  

   When deciding upon an e-mail address and username, avoid overly descriptive titles that imply any personal information. Also use alphanumeric passwords, as they discourage hacking.

   “When receiving spam e-mail, do not answer it -- not even to ask them to remove your name from their list,” said Linda Pogue, instructor of Computer Information Systems. “When you reply, you have put money in their pockets by proving that your e-mail is a good address.”

   Many spammers receive a payment by the number of proven addresses they can generate. Though they may remove an address from their files, it will be added to another file for the next marketing e-mail. 

   The University of Arkansas at Monticello uses Barracuda Spam Firewall, which features maximum spam and virus protection at all times while eliminating administrative overhead. Barracuda Central provides updates from where engineers work around the clock monitoring the Internet for trends in spam and virus threats, according to their Web site. 

   “Blocking all spam is impossible,” said James Roiger, associate professor of Computer Information Systems. “A good spam blocker will eliminate many spam messages but some will always get through. They use programs now that use bogus addresses so even if you update your spam filter with the address, the next message will have a different address.” 

   Though setting spam blockers to look for keywords will increase protection, it may also eliminate authentic messages. Spammers also deliberately misspell words to increase their message’s chance of evading filters. 

   “Until congress regulates senders, or e-mail software companies agree on and develop new protocols, we are just going to have to live with this problem and use the ‘delete’ button often,” Roiger said. 

   To heighten protection against viruses, disable HTML in e-mails. Hackers and spammers embed viruses in jpeg and gif graphics files and send them in messages. 

   “These (HTML) bugs install themselves on your computer, and then dynamically connect to the Internet when there is a connection to receive instructions,” Pogue said. 

   Never open e-mail attachments from an unrecognizable address, as it may contain a virus. File extensions provide users with the best indication of a virus. If at all possible, avoid extensions such as .vbs, .exe, .scr, .pif, .lnk or .bat.   

   “When the person is known to you, think about whether they should be sending attachments to you,” Roiger said. “If you are unsure, e-mail the person back and ask if they e-mailed you with an attachment.  Worms can take over unprotected computers and send out copies to anyone in your contact list.” 

   Roiger said he personally did not use a contact list. 

   “I keep contact information in a text file,” he said. “That way, if my computer ever does get infected, it can’t be used to infect others computers.”   

   Other e-mail safety tips include:

  • Register two e-mail accounts, one for business and one for personal use.
  • Memorize passwords as opposed to writing them down.
  • Always log off e-mail accounts upon finished use.
  • Avoid revealing passwords to e-mail services.
  • Scan attachments with a virus program prior to downloading them.

    “In today's world, computer security is more than common sense,” Pogue said. “It is vital to protect our privacy and our identities.”  

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© The Voice, 2005
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