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Protecting Yourself from Email and IM Viruses

Posted on May 10, 2011
Emails and instant messaging, while opening new vistas of communication through computers, run the risk of infecting computers with spam, worms, Trojans, and viruses.

Tags: email virus, email virus protection, email virus removal, instant messenger virus

Email viruses are transmitted through links and attachments contained in the email, and by sharing files, images, songs, and folders through instant messaging programs.

Unsolicited attachments and links with seemingly genuine subject matter such as 'unpaid bills,' 'important security update,' 'irresistible offers' and the like very often trap innocent users. Melissa, an early and devastating email virus distributed itself as a MS Word attachment, with the email containing a friendly note and the recipient’s name. Users clicking on the attachment had their computers infected, and the virus spread automatically by mailing itself to the email addresses contained in the infected computer's address book.

A few basic precautions that you can take to safeguard against email and instant messenger viruses include:

·    Not clicking on unsolicited links or attachments, without confirmation of the contents. Unsolicited emails from unknown senders are at best spam and at worst a deadly virus, and in both cases, they are best deleted without opening. Unsolicited emails from known senders or trusted sources could still contain viruses, though, with the sender remaining oblivious to the virus.
·    Closely looking at the email address and content for out-of-the-norm emails sent by service providers and commercial establishments such as banks.
·    Refraining from chatting with strangers through instant messaging programs. Instant messages make it easy to identify the IP address, the basic requirement needed to hack into another computer.

Application Settings

Web browsers such as Mozilla FireFox, email clients such as Outlook Express, and most instant messenger applications provide some basic safeguards against email viruses and related infections. The default settings however remain lax, and it's a good idea to change these defaults.

Some recommended settings to safeguard against email viruses include:

·    Disabling the preview pane in MS Outlook, Outlook Express and other mail clients to prevent the programs from opening malicious emails automatically.
·    Disabling HTML and scripting, and making plain text the default option for emails.
·    Changing preferences of chat clients to apply stricter permission controls.
·    Refraining from clicking on the ‘Remember My Password’ checkbox during log-in, especially on public computers.
·    Log out completely after the session. Failure to log out may cause the Instant Messenger to run in the system tray, leaving the computer vulnerable to attacks.

Anti-Virus Programs

Traditional anti-virus programs, especially free products, have several limitations when it comes to controlling email viruses, for new viruses and worms spread worldwide in a matter of minutes. However, recent technologies developed and used by some of the leading names in the security industry include methods such as heuristic detection and cloud computing to help combat this problem.

When choosing an anti-virus program, look for the following features:

·    real time virus checking and email virus removal facility
·    scanning of incoming and outgoing emails
·    removal of malicious tracking cookies from the browser
·    scanning of search results and warnings about non-safe links
·    automatic updates


Firewalls block unauthorized attempts made by remote users to access the computer and locally installed programs to transfer data to external sources.

Windows XP and Vista have default firewalls, but with limited effectiveness. Third-party firewalls offer enhanced protection by making programs such as Internet Explorer, Outlook Express or Media Player seek the user’s permission before gaining access to remote websites, and by issuing warnings when external websites try to gain access to the computer. These third-party solutions are actually quite inexpensive, especially when compared to the potential loss you could experience if someone does manage to gain access to your system and steal your personal information.

Upgrades and Add-Ons

Most web browsers, instant messengers, and email clients provide updated versions, bug fixes, or security patches that enhance security and integrate anti-virus solutions. Microsoft for instance routinely releases about 100 security patches per year. Extensive users of emails and instant messengers need to perform the upgrade as soon as one becomes available.

Mozilla Firefox provides add-ons that offer a greater level of security to detect and block potential email viruses and other malware. Two popular FireFox add-ons to check email virus are:

·    NoScript, that blocks JavaScript, Java, Flash and other executable content with the potential to harm the computer and excludes only those websites added by the user to the trusted list.
·    Web of Trust (WOT), that warns users about unsafe websites.

The Pidgin Encryption Add on for the Pidgin Instant messenger client encrypts instant messages. Failure to encrypt leaves the message and passwords open for interception by eavesdropping hackers.

An important consideration however is to download upgrades and add-ons from the provider’s official websites. Upgrades, patches, and add-ons do not come through email, and emails containing such upgrades are most probably viruses!

Email and instant messenger security is a live and ongoing area, with new vulnerabilities discovered every day. The best cure is prevention, and the best method of prevention is by keeping abreast of latest developments. Investing in a solid firewall and antivirus program will make this task much easier, as software vendors are constantly incorporating these new technologies into their products. Even the savviest of computer users is prone to a misclick once in a while, but if you're using top of the line security software, you won't have to worry about one little accidental click being responsible for the destruction of all your data or the theft of your identity.

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