Can I Get a Virus Just By Opening an Email?
I’m often asked if it’s possible to get a computer virus by simply opening an email. It is true that email has always been one of the most popular attack vectors. Hackers, spammers, phishers and scammers are all knocking on the door of your inbox. But how easily can they slip in, and wreak havoc on your computer? Let's find out...
Viruses and Other Threats in Your Email
The probability that you could be infected by an email-delivered virus just by opening a message was once terrifyingly large. But the vulnerabilities that made it so were quickly addressed by developers of email clients and antivirus software. Today, you have to do some pretty foolish things to catch a virus by simply opening an email.
But myths, urban legends and endlessly repeated tales of the cousin of the friend of a friend who got a virus by opening an email die hard on the Internet. And ironically, these tales live on and are propagated largely by email. I still get warnings of the Hallmark Virus, the Olympic Torch Virus and similar missives warning me not to open emails with certain subject lines, or a horrible uncurable virus will wipe out my hard drive.
Today, you may be able to disable some of the multiple safeguards built into your email client. You may be using a ten year-old version of Outlook Express that doesn’t contain any safeguards. Maybe you've stubbornly clung to your copy of Windows 98, or you've refused to install any of the security updates or service packs for newer versions of Windows. You may even eschew virus protection that includes email-scanning in real time.
But you’re not that foolish, are you? You don't even have to spend money to get excellent Internet security software. See my article Free Anti-Virus Programs (http://askbobrankin.com/free_antivirus_programs.html) to find links to a dozen free anti-virus and anti-spyware tools.
Some people don’t send or read HTML; they stick with old-school plain text email. That’s a sure way to avoid triggering embedded malicious code, but it makes for a very poor email experience. Also, it doesn’t entirely protect against email-born malware.
Beyond the First Click: Other Email Threats
Okay, so the likelihood of being infected just by clicking to open a message sitting in your inbox is vanishingly small. I'd venture to say it's zero if you allow Windows to automatically update, and you have anti-virus protection. But once you open that email, other dangers lurk. It's the second click that'll get you in trouble.
Files attached to either plain-text or HTML email can contain viruses. That is why it is so important not to click on any attachment whose sender you do not know and trust. Because email senders’ addresses can be faked, it’s also vital to use anti-malware software that scans every email attachment.
The bad guys out there rely mainly on social engineering to entrap victims these days. Typically, that means a phishing email that masquerades as something from a trusted sender, urging you to click on a link in the email. Some typical ploys are messages that promise juicy gossip, graphic photos or racy videos. These messages often try to pique your curiousity by mentioning celebrities, public figures or current events.
Other emails may pretend to be from a company that you know, such as your bank, Facebook, Paypal or eBay. One false click and you could be dealing with a nasty virus, or caught in the snare of identity thieves. See my related article Spear Phishing and Internet Security http://askbobrankin.com/spear_phishing_and_internet_security.html for more information on email phishing, and how to defend against it.
One of the things I like about web-based email, and GMail in particular, is that you're protected from most of these threats without installing any software at all. If a message with a suspicious link or attachment comes your way, it's either blocked completely, or a warning is displayed that the content may be malicious.
If you use webmail, or you're conscientious about keeping your desktop email software up to date, there is no reason to fear that you will catch a virus simply by reading an email. But be careful about clicking on links or attachments. That's where the trouble starts.
Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...
Posted by Bob Rankin on 17 Aug 2012
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Can I Get a Virus Just By Opening an Email? (Posted: 17 Aug 2012)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved