During a slightly scary session on e-mail management at the ICPA Educational Forum at the Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans in July, tech guru Corbin Ball of Bellingham, Wash.-based Corbin Ball Associates, made it clear that no one's PC is safe from prying eyes. But there are some defenses you can deploy.
Stop the E-mail Madness
First, there's the annoying invasion: The junk e-mail, known as spam. In May this year, the global ratio of spam to legit e-mail broke the halfway mark for the first time at 55.1 percent. And, since all a spammer needs is one sale out of 500,000 tries to make a profit, the amount of spam you delete each day is only going to grow — up to 40 percent this year alone, according to Ball. What's a planner to do?
First, never respond to spam, even if only to opt out of the list. It only confirms that your e-mail address is a valid one, said Ball. You have to rely on your spam filters, which unfortunately are useful only until the spammers find a way to get around them. Still, they're the best defense so far. Many e-mail readers, such as AOL, Eudora, and Outlook, have spam protection filtering built in. One free program Ball recommended is called MailWasher (www.mailwasher.com).
Another way to get around the spammers is to set up an alias e-mail through www.sneakemail.com. You can set up a free fake, disposable e-mail address that serves as an alias for your real e-mail address. You get the e-mails at your real address, but any spam that comes your way via your sneakemail account can be traced back to its source. You then can filter any e-mail addressed to that alias, or chuck the alias and never give an e-mail address to the site it traces back to again.
Duck the Spammers
But how do they find you to begin with? The Center for Democracy and Technology recently conducted a six-month study, setting up e-mail addresses that were used for only one purpose, then sat back to see which ones attracted the most spam. The analysis found that e-mail addresses that are prominently posted on a public Web site drew the most spam. Ball explained that spammers send out software-harvesting spider robots to find anything with an “@” in it on everything from personal Web pages to corporate and nonprofit Web sites. You can get around it by replacing the “@” with the word “at”; by using a graphic image of your e-mail address instead of the actual characters; or by replacing the e-mail address characters with equivalent html code. According to the report, “e-mail addresses posted to Web sites using these conventions did not receive any spam.”
The next biggest culprits CDT found were newsgroups and chat sites. You can get around this one by setting up an alternate e-mail address to use only for visiting the newsgroup. Online Web site forms that request your e-mail address also can be a source for spam. (For a full copy of the CDT report, go to www.cdt.org/speech/spam/030319spamreport.shtml.)
Viruses and Other Bugs
Moving from annoying to scary, let's talk about computer viruses, worms, and Trojan horses. Ball said there are currently 58,000 viruses just looking for computers to crash, and new ones come online every day. Red flags include any attachment that end with .exe, .vbs, .bat, .com, .scr, or .pif. Don't open these unless you already know exactly what's being sent and who's sending it. Double file extensions, such as doc.exe are almost always viruses, he said, adding that keeping your anti-virus protection software up-to-date and using the most recent Web browsers and patches will help.
Then there's spyware and adware. While not illegal in the United States, these programs include charming little quirks like tracking which Web sites you go to, where you go on a particular Web site, and how long you stay there. A recent run of a program called Spybot (http://security.kolla.de) on this reporter's home PC also found imbedded “cookies” programmed to pop up an ad every time the user typed in a certain keyword, and even one that causes an ad for a company to pop up on the screen when you go to a competitor's Web site. Other anti-spyware programs include panicware (www.panicware.com), and Ad-Aware (www.lavasoft.de).
There is some good news for Macintosh users, though. According to information posted at the Spybot site, the Mac platform is still flying under the radar for spyware developers. Macs still are susceptible to keyloggers, invisible surveillance tools that record every keystroke to an encrypted log file, which then can be sent secretly via e-mail to a specified receiver. They also can monitor Internet activity by logging the addresses of visited home pages. These can be kept under control with regularly updated Mac antivirus programs, such as Symantech's Norton Antivirus for the Mac (www.symantech.com).