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Techno Corner

Arun Marballi

In one of my earlier columns, I had touched upon safe e-mail habits. However, considering the importance and ubiquity of e-mail in our everyday life, it is apparent that it warrants greater attention. I will therefore address, at a little greater depth, some safety precautions and setting changes that might make our e-mail experiences a little safer.

Many of us use Outlook for our e-mail purposes and one of the efficiency or usability features included in Outlook is the preview pane where an e-mail item is displayed simply by highlighting it on the list pane. I have stated in the past that it is important to not open suspicious looking e-mail items. However, all our efforts of refraining from opening questionable e-mail items could be for naught if we have the Preview Pane option set to “On” (which is the normal setting). The problem with this is that if an e-mail item we have received contains a malicious link or a virus of some kind, we risk infection when the preview pane displays that suspect item. It is possible to deactivate the preview pane by accessing the View Menu and then selecting the appropriate option depending on the version of Outlook being used (in Outlook Express select Profiles|Preview Pane and turn it off; in Outlook 2002, select Preview Pane and toggle it off; in Outlook 2003, select Reading Pane and turn it off).

Another risk that the Outlook Preview Pane exposes us to is in displaying an HTML message from a spammer (someone sending unsolicited e-mail). Typically, HTML content contains references to pictures and graphics on the sender’s server and displaying these messages inadvertently activates these links, thereby alerting the sender of the validity of your e-mail address.

Spammers make money by sending out unsolicited advertisements as well as by selling e-mail address lists. It is important to never confirm your e-mail address for a spammer by (a) buying something from them, (b) clicking on the “Unsubscribe” link or (c) displaying an HTML message.

Many worms (malicious software) attempt to spoof us with what appears to be undeliverable mail. Similarly, many viruses also use the Subject Line “Undeliverable” or similar message so unsuspecting users are duped into opening the message and infecting their machine. Further, e-mail viruses will often spoof the return address when e-mailing themselves to addresses stored on your machine. This prevents legitimate “undeliverable” messages from being returned to you – thus warning you of the virus’s presence on your computer.

If you believe an e-mail is legitimate and came from a valid address, you can verify this by right-clicking on the message line in the Outlook list pane and selecting Options from the menu of choices to display the message header. (In Outlook Express, right-click, select Properties and then choose the Details Tab. Look in the “To:” section of the header for a legitimate e-mail address. If there is one, then the undeliverable e-mail is probably genuine.

E-mail attachments probably represent the single greatest threat as they may disguise dangerous payloads. A defensive tactic for dealing with attachments is to either (a) block attachments completely (this is possible in all versions of Outlook) although it takes away our ability to receive valid documents, pictures, etc., or (b) verify the validity of the attachment by calling the purported sender on the telephone before opening them.

Finally, Outlook Express offers a very nifty feature that can alert us to the presence of an e-mail virus on our computer. This feature is a check box labeled “Warn me when other applications try to send mail as me.” Setting this option can provide us a little extra protection.

Arun Marballi has worked in the Information Technology arena for more than 20 years with extensive experience in software development, process design and network/workstation management. For comments, questions, tips or suggestions, e-mail


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