Basic Internet Security
How Secure is your email?

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Email and Internet security can be a complex subject, but we'll try to keep it as simple as we can.

There are now more people using email than ever before and its use has become so commonplace that most of us simply take it for granted, but in an affort to make emails more attractive and user-friendly some of the safeguards which originally made email safe are being overlooked.

If you use the Internet the chances are you regularly receive junk email you neither want nor expect. As well as being a nuisance these can often be distasteful and also pose a a real security threat. So how can we make our Internet and Email usage safer?

The first thing is to make sure your own computer is safe. If you already have Internet security software installed on your computer that is a good start. If not, then it's high time you did - every time you connect to the Internet your computer is at risk unless you have good, reputable Security software.


If you connect to the Internet through a router or wireless router then simple anti-virus software should be sufficient for most people, but if you connect using a simple modem or a 3G USB dongle your computer is at greater risk and you should look for Internet security software which also includes 'firewall' software or, at the very least, use the Windows Firewall which is built into Windows XP and Windows 7. (Typically you can connect several computers to a router using either a wired or wireless connection, whereas a modem has a connection for only one PC, typically using a USB cable.)

The Thomson Speedtouch 330
- a typical ADSL Modem

But simply installing good Internet security software is not enough, especially if you use webmail, as many people do these days. (You use webmail if you access your email using the same browser software you use to look at web sites, and have an email address from the likes of Hotmail, Yahoo or Google, to give the most common examples.)

The advantage of webmail is that as long as you remember your login details you can access your email and your address book from any computer anywhere, but the disadvantage is that if someone knows, guesses or intercepts your login details, they can access your email and your address book from any computer anywhere. The Internet security you diligently installed on your own computer is of no help in this case because your email is not stored on your computer it is on a web server provided by Hotmail, Yahoo or whoever.

In my experience the most secure, reliable and slick webmail services are Google (Googlemail or Gmail) and GMX, but whichever service you use I strongly recommend that you change your email password regularly, typically every 30-60 days. Don't wait for your account - including your address book - to be hacked, do it as a regular thing. Think of it as the electronic equivalent of defrosting the fridge or checking the oil and water levels in your car.

If you access your email using a separate email program like Outlook Express, Outlook, Mail or Thunderbird, for example, these are generally more secure but however you access your email there are some basic rules you need to follow:

  1. Set the View options in your email program so that emails are displayed using either Simple HTML, or better still, Plain Text. Most people, when they write emails, are only writing words, so words are all you need to see. You don't really need all the bells and whistles. (Fancy HTML emails can include malicious code along with the pictures and graphics, so it's far safer to keep things simple.)
  2. Be alert. Downloading and reading email is a bit like letting a bunch people off the street into your home. Some of them may be your friends, some you may have written to in the past, while others may be complete strangers. But as we will see in a moment Trust your friends but be suspcious of everyone else and don't talk to strangers. You were probably given that advice as a child, and as advice goes it's just as important today and, as we will see in a moment, even email which looks like it's from a friend may not be...
  3. Be very careful of email attachments. (These are data or software files which have been sent along with your email.) Never open or run an attachment you are not expecting or are suspicious of.

Types of email abuse you can encounter:

  • SPOOFING - anyone can send an email claiming to be anyone. So you need to be aware that an email may not be from the person or organisation it claims to be from.
  • SPAM - email sent out by the million to addresses obtained using unfair means and then sold to anyone who'll pay the price. You can usually tell if an email is spam by looking at the subject and the sender. If you don't want the email, don't even read it, just delete it
    straight away. (Yes, 'spam' does derive its name from that famous Monty Python sketch.)
  • SCAMS - These are emails which seem like they might be genuine but on the Internet, as elsewhere, anything which seems to be too good to be true invariably turns out to be false. Again, just delete it.
  • TROJANS - malicious software which gets into your comoputer by tricking you and hi-jacks part of it. Set the View options in your email program so that emails are displayed using either Simple HTML, or better still, Plain Text.
  • PHISHING - these are emails which suggest that you need to go somewhere, to some official-looking site, to enter some personal or
    financial details. Don't do it. Before you know it you could find yoour identity stolen or your bank account emptied - or both. And for that matter never click on a link in an email unless you know who sent it to you and why. If in doubt, check with the sender first.

NEVER be tempted to reply to junk email; no-one will ever read it and all it does is confirm to the spammers that your email address is genuine.

Finally remember, large organisations like government departments, banks and software companies simply do not rely on email to contact people. Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, for example, are on public record as stating that the NEVER contact people by email. Similarly banks will NEVER write to you to ask you to confirm your account or contact details by email. And Microsoft will NEVER email or telephone you about their software. If any of these things happen to you, ignore them. If Microsoft seem to be on the phone to you, hang up. All these things are scams.

Software suggestions:
Anti-virus software
(Windows) | Anti-virus software (Mac OS)

Free anti-virus software:
Avast! (Windows) | iAntivirus (Mac OS)

Other Security software:
ESET Smart Security
(Windows) | ESET Cyberbsecurity (Mac)

Free webmail providers:
Googlemail | GMX

Free email program:
Mozilla Thunderbird (Windows or Mac OS)

Free alternative web browsers:
Mozilla Firefox (Windows or Mac OS) | SRware Iron (Windows)