Guarding Yourself Against Email Viruses

Computer viruses often propagate themselves through email attachments. Hackers seem to get their jollies out of slowing down the Internet or bringing corporate business to a crawl. One way to do this seems to be to target the most popular email programs, such as Outlook and Windows Live Mail's predecessor, Outlook Express. As a result, the bulk of email-borne contagion exists in the form of attachments whose payloads prey on the weaknesses in those two programs. Personally, I think that both these programs are excellent email clients, so I don't suggest changing your email program just to avoid the onslaughts of malicious Internet hackers.

As you might suspect, Microsoft doesn't want to lose customers either, so it makes a point of looking for viruses and posting critical updates to its site for easy download. A good approach is to run a Windows System Update regularly. Automatic Updates are turned on for just this reason.

In addition, security has been improved in Windows Live Mail to specifically combat this problem. By going to Menus, Safety Options, you'll notice a wide range of new options for protecting yourself from malicious email. On the Security tab you will note that Windows Live Mail offers an option to warn you if another program attempts to send a message appearing to be from you. As you may be aware, this is a common way for viruses to spread. I recommend that you keep this option selected. There is also an option that deals with potential threats from incoming email attachments. If you click the box next to Do Not Allow Attachments to Be Saved or Opened That Could Potentially Be a Virus, you'll be more protected, but your ability to access any attachment to email in Windows Live Mail will be limited. If you're diligent about it, a better way of dealing with the possibility of attachment-borne viruses is to carefully look over your incoming email before opening any attachment, following the tips presented a little later in this section. I've found that when enabling the automatic feature in Windows Live Mail, even the most innocuous attachments are prevented from opening. (You can regain access to these attachments simply by returning to the Security dialog box and deselecting this option.)

Yet another option is to download and use one of many available antivirus programs. A reliable source is www.mcafee.com, and its website is another good place to check for the latest discovered viruses and how to protect your computer from them. I like a freebie called Avast (www.avast.com) and have had good luck with it for several years. AVG also offers a free version of its commercial package. You can find it at http://free.avg.com.

^ For help dealing with junk mail and spam and phishing emails, and for information on protecting your computer from viruses, adware, malware, Trojans, and all other manner of invasive mischief, see Chapter 30, "Protecting Windows from Viruses and Spyware," and Chapter 33, "Protecting Yourself from Fraud and Spam."

Contrary to popular belief, simply downloading an infected attachment virtually never harms your computer. With few exceptions, it is only if you open an attached executable file that there could be dire consequences. If possible, save the file attachment on a separate disk and then scan it with antivirus software.

Be especially wary of the following:

Attachments you weren't expecting (even from people you know). If in doubt, write back to the sender and ask whether they intended to send you the attachment. Their computer may have a virus they are unaware of. Ask whether the attachment is safe and whether they've run it on their computer.

Executable attachments (filenames ending in .exe, .vbs, or .js). Be aware that sometimes filenames are misleading on purpose. For example, you might see an attachment such as party.jpg.vbs. This is not a picture. The final extension (.vbs) is the one that counts.

Emails with cryptic or odd subjects and messages, such as "I Luv U," "Here's that document you requested," or "CHECK THIS OUT!!!"

Anything that comes from a source you are unfamiliar with.

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