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Five Tips for Avoiding E-mail Viruses

Bill Ringle
America's Internet Business Coach

I've developed a course called "Take Back Your Inbox" for professionals who use business e-mail and feel overwhelmed at times from the volume and variety of what arrives via the net daily. Most of the mail message volume is unwanted solicitations (aka "spam") and can be dealt with a simple stroke of the delete key or well-placed action, filter, or other automated rule.

Some of the spam is deadly serious: it can wipe out your hard drive. What's more, you can become the unwitting carrier of a computer virus, propagating the pestilence to everyone in your address book.

To borrow a succinct understatement from the movie Ghostbusters, "that would be bad."

Here are a handful of tips from the you can use to protect yourself and your colleagues:

1. Never open unexpected e-mail attachments without confirming with the sender. Though this sounds tedious, it is probably the single most important practice to develop. It is unfortunately very common for virus writers today to masquerade as (somewhat) cleverly worded messages that are transmitted by infected e-mail.

Two tip offs: First, beware the simple generic messages, such as "check this out," "you won't believe this," or "a joke for you." Second, watch out for files that can "run" on your computer operating system. For Windows users (98, 95, NT, ME, etc.), the most common file suffix to watch out for in attachments is ".exe" Microsoft Word, ubiquitous on both Windows and Mac business computers, also is susceptible to macro viruses and a common target, so watch out for suspect ".doc" file attachments.

2. Be careful what links you follow. Hyperlinks embedded in e-mail messages might not be as innocuous as you might think. A link to a "trap" web site could do all sorts of nasty things, from capturing your e-mail address for spam sales to downloading more destructive software onto your hard drive. I demonstrate some of these traps in the seminar with the warning, "don't try this at home!" If you have doubts about whether a link is "clean" or contains hidden codes that might lead to undesirable results, you can do two simple things to decrease the likelihood of problems: a) retype the URL in your web browser rather than double-clicking the embedded link, and b) disable scripting in your web browser.

3. Update your software with the latest patches. Standardizing on Microsoft Outlook has its advantages from a support and cost standpoint, but it also has a significant downside in that it becomes an easy and popular target for attention-starved virus programmers. Whether you use Outlook, Eudora, Lotus Notes, AOL (say it isn't so!), or one of the web-based e-mail services, be sure to check your e-mail developer's web site periodically and install whatever patches are provided to improve security.

4. Delete spam immediately. It makes no sense to keep it around, but the pack-rat mentality persists! When I worked in a technical support role at Drexel University several lifetimes ago, I would preserve samples of computer viruses on diskettes and store them in large glass jars in a bookshelf in my office. In carefully controlled environments, I would study the behavior of viruses and test the effectiveness of anti-virus software and preventative techniques. (Reports that I filled the jars with formaldehyde are sheer exaggerations!) If this type of activity is not part of your job description, just delete the spam -- save disk space and anxieties in one fell swoop!

5. Run up to date virus protection software on your computer, such as Norton AntiVirus Utilities (NAV). It's simple, safe, affordable, and effective. NAV periodically checks with Norton via the web for virus information updates. In addition, Norton also came out with a version of AntiVirus for the PalmOS. (Yeah, you knew it would just be a matter of time, right? A trojan horse, , was recently discovered and found to be malicious.)

Bonus tip: When you send an e-mail file, always describe in the body of the message what the recipient should expect how to open the file for best results. For instance: "Attached is the latest budget report. The file is called 'MarketingBudget_2001Q2.xls' and you'll need Excel 98/97 to open it. Don't convert it to a different format, or you may leave some of our group unable to open it. Thanks!"

Bill Ringle is America's Internet Business Coach. He works with organizations that want to grow or improve their business using the Internet and with business leaders who want to use technology to increase their impact.

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