How to spot potentially infected e-mails




Computer viruses are like the weather: Everybody talks about them. Mostly the complaints run along these lines: "Outlook is a virus magnet! Seems like I can never watch the news or pick up the paper without a story about yet another killer virus targeting Outlook. The last person at our office to get hit with a virus lost days of work. I'm terrified that my PC will get infected too!"

In any case it is advantageous to be vigilant, and this can serve you well with regards to avoiding viruses disguising themselves in e-mails.

Here are a few simple steps that will help you avoid becoming the next office pariah.

1. Don't open suspicious attachments--ever.
If you're still tempted to open pictures of Anna or click a read-me file from a stranger, we have two words for you: Stop it! Never open an attachment you weren't expecting to get.

Even if the attachment is from someone you know, be careful. Spammers and virus writers can spoof infected machines and make it look like messages from them come from your friends.

2. Check your antivirus settings.
This assumes that you have antivirus software. If you don't, stop here and go get some from the CNET Virus Center.

Your antivirus software won't do you much good unless it's set to give you maximum protection. Go to the Preferences or Settings menu of your antivirus software and make sure these options are enabled:

  • Autoprotection: Your security software always should be scanning your files for potential viruses. Make sure this always-on protection is activated, preferably as soon as your system boots up.
  • Automatic updates: Antivirus software is only as good as its virus definition files, which store profiles of the latest threats. Most security apps will download and install the most recent updates automatically; double-check to make sure this option is activated.
  • Scan incoming and outgoing files: Viruses almost always come in the form of e-mail attachments. Make sure your antivirus software is scanning any and all attachments as they arrive and as they depart (in case your system becomes a carrier).

3. Get the latest security updates.
Having a hard time keeping track of the latest Microsoft patches? We don't blame you. Quickly scan your system and see if you need any updates by visiting Microsoft's Office Update site. And if you're still using Office 2000, make sure you've installed Service Pack 3, which will help Outlook block EXE attachments and other potentially malicious files. (Those with Office XP or later already have this protection.)

4. Keep viruses to yourself.
If, despite your best efforts, a virus slips through Outlook's cracks and your PC is infected, the last thing you want to do is spread the bug to everyone in your address book. We found a couple of utilities that will protect your friends and colleagues if your system falls victim to a virus.

  • ViraLock: This Outlook add-on keeps viruses from e-mailing themselves to everyone in your contact list by encrypting all of the e-mail addresses in your address book. When you're ready to send a message to a buddy, ViraLock seamlessly decrypts the e-mail address.
  • VirusArrest: What if a virus beats the odds, cracks ViraLock's encryption (unlikely, but always possible) and prepares to send itself to everyone in your address book? VirusArrest might be the last line of defense. The program requires you to approve any outgoing e-mail with an attachment. If you're warned that an e-mail message is about to go out and you didn't know about it, you can stop the message (and its payload) in its tracks.

Helpful Advice from those Friendly People at DOT-COMmunICaTions