Q: I receive lots of messages from friends and others. Sometimes I don’t know the person sending the mail so I delete it before a virus can infects my computer. How do I know if it is safe to open an email from someone? – George B., Muscle Shoals
A: You have stumbled upon one of the biggest myths concerning computer virus infections. While it is true that one of the main ways virus infections spread is via email, it almost always safe to view or “open” an email – even an email infected with a virus. I can almost hear some of you thinking, (italics) “Jim, you big goofer, we all know that viruses can be spread by email!” The reality is that, while I may be a goofer, a virus can’t just jump out of your Inbox without a lot of help from you.
In the late 1990’s there were some problems with the most popular email readers, Outlook and Outlook Express, which allowed some types of viruses to infect your computer by previewing the message. Those problems were patched by Microsoft long ago. If you have a new computer or have updated your computer by visiting www.WindowsUpdate.com sometime during the past few years, there is virtually no chance of infecting your computer by viewing the message body of an email. Email viruses can only be spread when someone receives an email and (italics) OPENS AN INFECTED ATTACHMENT. In essence, you have to grant permission for a virus to infect your computer via email.
So how do you know when and when not to open an attachment? For starters, don’t open anything that says something like “Sexy pictures of me and my friends” or other such provocative junk. If common sense fails you, there are some general rules about opening attachments: If you receive an email with an attachment from someone you don't know, simply don’t open the attachment. Most antivirus programs will automatically delete infected emails but, even so, you don’t accept candy from strangers. The same goes for email attachments.
Don’t assume that an attachment form a friend is safe. Many viruses are spread by automatically sending attachments to addresses found in a victim’s address book. If you have any doubt, simply call or email your friend and ask if they sent something to you.
If we all stopped visiting websites that our momma would not approve of, if we all stopped downloading illegal music , movies and software, if we all exercised more caution and common sense opening up email attachments, our computers would never let us down. Until that happens, simply keep your antivirus, anti-spyware and your operating system up-to-date and ease up on the delete key.