Can I Really Catch an Email Virus
Just by Looking?

by Leo A. Notenboom

In the past, asking if you could catch an Email Virus just by reading your Email would get laughs from the techie geeks in the crowd. " course not!" they would giggle. But things have changed. Find out how you can protect yourself."

EMail Virus problems get worse each week. A new EMail Virus seems to appear every day, and they're getting smarter. And each is an opportunity for even more people to become infected.

In the past, asking if you could catch an EMail Virus just by reading your EMail would get laughs from the techie geeks in the crowd. "Of course not!" they would giggle.

Then came Outlook. All of a sudden you didn't even have to read your email to get infected. And the geeks stopped giggling.

The techie geeks, in fact, are right once again. If you do the right things, you cannot get a virus just by reading your email. And the "right things" aren't that difficult.

The problem arose when HTML formatted email became popular. If you've ever visited a visited a website that had a game or some other form of interactive page, chances are you actually downloaded a program from that website to run on your machine. Current web technologies blur the line between web pages that just have pictures and text, and web pages that can actually do something.

When EMail is sent in HTML format, all those constructs that work on web pages could be included. And that means that all of a sudden your EMail could do something as well.

Then came the preview pane. This is a window that displays the currently selected message without you actually having to "open" it. If your inbox is empty, and a new message arrives, it is displayed. It could do something, even if you weren't around to open the message.

EMail had become a viral breeding ground, and you didn't even have to be there to witness it.

Fortunately, these issues became very evident very fast. Security settings were added to new versions of Outlook, and patches were issues for the older versions. Even so, it took a few tries to get it right and each new version of Outlook has become a little more secure than the previous.

The bottom line for the average user is this: Plain text email cannot infect you just by looking at it. HTML Mail will not infect you just by looking at it, if you are running a current version of Outlook or Outlook Express, and keep any version of the two up to date with the latest patches.

Pretty simple, really.

Let's review some of the rules for safe EMail:

  • Keep your versions of Windows, Outlook and Outlook Express up to date with the latest patches.
  • Keep your system clean of Viruses and Spyware by running the appropriate Anti-Virus checkers and Spyware checkers on a regular basis. Keep those up to date too.
  • Never, ever open an attachment unless you're positiveyou know what it is and that you trust the sender.
  • Never, ever click on a link in an email message unless you're positiveyou know where it's going and that you trust the sender.
  • Don't believe everything you read in email. PayPal and Citibank and whomever else will not be asking you to verify your account by email - it's probably just a scam to get your credit card number.

Leo A. Notenboom is a software engineer and entrepreneur who worked for Microsoft for many years, either developing some of the company's best known software or managing other engineers who did. When he left he started his own software engineering company and consulting firm, Pudget Sound Software. In addition to the services offered through, Leo runs the the popular Ask Leo! technical support site ( Leo can be reached at [email protected].

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