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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Email Security

E-mail has become an essential mode of communication in the modern world. Unfortunately, that means it's also one of the most common routes for virus infection and fraud. Protecting yourself from these kinds of threats is necessary for everyone.

Viruses

Viruses often arrive in the form of e-mail attachments, so exercise care when opening any attachment - even from a known source. Some viruses infiltrate address books and send infected e-mail to everyone listed, so it's possible to receive a virus from a friend or colleague. Ideally, you should communicate beforehand to expect an attachment.

The best protection against e-mail viruses is virus protection software that automatically scans each attachment as it arrives at your computer. Every computer connected to the Internet should have antivirus software, to protect your own system and the Internet as a whole. Some viruses start on an individual system but spread to entire networks, engulfing the equipment essential to run the Internet.

Phishing

Frauds are another security risk posed by e-mail. One type, called 'phishing', tries to trick the recipient into disclosing personal financial information or passwords. These e-mails use logos of well-known institutions like banks or online retailers and ask you to update your password or financial information.

They provide a link which looks legitimate but in reality directs you to a phony web site. Providing personal information leads to becoming the victim of credit card fraud or theft - sometimes called 'identity theft'.

Tipoffs can be gleaned from the subject line or the content. Rather than using your personal name, they may say 'Dear valued customer'. But finding some variant of your name isn't difficult these days. Beware, in either case.

A more subtle tipoff is a link which doesn't correspond to the text describing it. This can be verified by checking the status bar when you highlight the link. If the text says something like "Microsoft", but the URL is "www.somebadplace.com" you know the message is not from the folks in Redmond, Washington.

Specialized software can detect phishing, though it hasn't reached maturity - it often identifies legitimate e-mail as fraud. Always treat requests for passwords or credit card numbers with suspicion. Remember, no legitimate financial institution will ask you to verify your password or sensitive data in an e-mail.

E-mail Backups

Like any other kind of data, e-mail can (and should) be backed up. It's easy to do with most e-mail programs - simply export the messages to a folder, then backup the folder with a backup program onto a removable disk, writeable CD or DVD or other media.

Specialized backup software can be purchased at modest cost to backup e-mails directly, eliminating the export step.

Backup programs can usually be automated to occur at a convenient time without requiring further intervention. Granted, configuring them is one more thing to do in a busy schedule. But the first time you lose one that's badly needed, you'll be much busier trying to replace it if it wasn't backed up.