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Internet Security Basics – Emails

January 22, 2013

email addresses importance

The importance of email addresses

Having an email address is a must nowadays. Not only are email addresses important for written correspondence, but they also help represent your online identity. Many servers and portals identify users just by their email addresses, which are beginning to reflect more and more sensitive and personal information than may be wise.

Many people spend hours trying to choose the best name for their email addresses. Generally, a simple and straightforward name is recommended for mailboxes in formal communications, like business, while informal exchanges could carry any random name or nickname.

A very important part of your email address is the provider. People typically choose a server with the graphical interface they like the most or because they recognize or like the name of the mailbox provider. But there are other considerations to keep in mind, such as security features of the server and experiences other people have had with that provider.

Set security circuits with multiple mailboxes

It is very important to create more than one email address and use each one for specific purposes. For example, one address may be just for formal things, such as job interviews, another may be to receive your online bills, and then another for informal things, including logins on forums and other recreational communication.

Dividing your mailboxes into specific types of correspondence is like setting up “security circuits”, and the number of circuits or mailboxes you may need to have depends on your circumstances. This method works if you protect your formal mailbox by creating a stronger password and use it only for its designated purpose. A formal or primary mailbox shouldn’t receive spam or other unwanted emails. If you do, you may want to change your mailbox to ensure a security breach hasn’t occurred.

As mentioned above, different mail service providers offer different mailbox services and features. It is in your best interest to learn all the features of your mailbox so you can set security checks and rules in place as stringent or lenient as necessary. So if you receive sensitive information via emails, it may be a good choice for you to increase protection.

The most common email threats

  1. Spam
    Spam is unsolicited communication (usually advertising) that is mass-distributed via the Internet. Originally used primarily for advertising emails, over time this phenomenon also infiltrated other types of Internet communications, such as discussion forums, comments, and instant messaging. Spam is also referred to as UBE / UCE (Unsolicited Bulk / Commercial Email). The name comes from an American brand of canned lunchmeat that has been produced since the 1930’s. Currently, the manufacturer insists on writing the brand in capitals – SPAM®. During World War II, the product was quite well-known, but much less so in Great Britain. The opposite of spam is mail that is sent to a specific person (who considers it relevant) with a specific purpose. The term for this is “ham,” though it is rarely used.
    Email addresses are obtained from spam databases, among other places, by robots that go through web pages and collect any email addresses they may contain. Robots usually do not do a deep analysis of the source code, rather they collect everything that looks like an email address, such as a sequence of letters, numbers, dashes or dots that contain the @ symbol. Therefore, it is recommended that you avoid displaying full email addresses directly on a website.  It can be wise to represent email addresses through some other humanly comprehensible means; such as “name (at) domain.com.” Spam-sending databases can also obtain email addresses via viruses, so it is important to know the basic rules for safe Internet behavior and to secure your computer against viruses. Most spam is distributed from computers infected by a virus or worm. The virus or worm can open a backdoor that allows the attacker to remotely control the computer and exploit it continuously for the purpose of sending spam. Sending a robot and mailing address database might be sent by an infected computer ad hoc. Protection against spam distribution can be accomplished with classic antivirus software or another complex security solution. For network administrators, it is important to be able to locate and isolate the infected computer.
  2. Hoax
    A hoax is an attempt to purposefully dupe an audience into believing something is real, when it actually is not what it appears or claims to be. A hoax can be made by using only true statements but with different context or wording. A hoax is often carried out as a practical joke, to cause embarrassment, or to create awareness to prompt social change. Many hoaxes are motivated to poke fun at, educate or point out the absurdity of the target.
    For more about hoaxes, read the previous article in this weekly series which focuses on Hoaxes.
  3. Phishing
    Phishing is a criminally fraudulent process of collecting sensitive information such as usernames, passwords and credit card details by pretending to be a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication. Communications supposedly from well-known social networks, auction sites, online payment processors or IT administrators are common fronts to bait the unsuspecting computer user. Phishing is commonly performed by email or instant messaging, directing users to enter details at a fake website that mimics a legitimate one. Even when using server authentication, it may not be apparent that it is a fake website. An example of social engineering techniques, phishing is used to trick users, exploiting the weaknesses of web security technologies. The rising number of phishing scams has prompted an increase of legislation, training for the user, public awareness, and technical security procedures.

What to do if your email is compromised

It is obvious that if you follow the recommendations described above, abuse of your formal mailbox is not so easy and an attack on your other email addresses is not so dangerous.

If, however, a break of your formal email address is suspected, you need to act fast. Immediately change your password to this mailbox and think about all the logins and other vulnerable information the attacker may have had access to. For example, if you have your PayPal login information filed in your email, be sure to block the PayPal account. You need to do this for all your sensitive information.

Setting up “security circuits” with multiple mailboxes, tightening the security rules on particular email addresses and understanding the types of email threats prevalent on the Internet today are key in keeping yourself safe while interacting online. Following these suggestions will help protect your sensitive information while still having fun.   

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