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7 Ways to Recognize Virus-Sick Email Attachments

Every few months, a new virus makes the rounds, and computer anti-virus companies send out warnings and advice on either how to clear the virus from your computer or hoe to keep the virus clear from your computer so it never gets infected.

It’s only March, and we are already reading about the dreaded JS-Agent-Die virus. And quite likely, there will be more throughout 2015.

The window for complacency among PC users has slammed shut. According to the most recent security report from antivirus protection company Kaspersky, the malware favored by today’s hackers is multifunctional, capable not only of gobbling up your private data but also downloading and installing malicious programs and hijacking your system to become part of whatever automated system they want to set up.

As sophisticated as all that sounds, malware’s route into your computer (and even mobile devices) tends to be relatively straightforward. Malware generally comes into your system from your email (but also from visiting websites filled with it). Unwary users are clicking their way to chaos through the simple act of opening email that appears to be perfectly safe from sources they trust.

You don’t have to be a PC repair expert to learn how to tell when you’ve received a suspicious email that could pose a threat to your system. Watch for the following danger signs.

1. Scan All Attachments

Acknowledge that there are no “safe” senders, especially among family members. Unfortunately, hapless relatives are a common source of email viruses. Malware often automatically generates email to everyone listed in an infected party’s contacts list, so that email from your brother might not be something he actually sent.

Be on the alert for emails that “spoof” the return address of a trusted source such as your bank, internet provider or software company, creating an email that looks genuine but contains links and a return address that hide the true sender. Simply move your mouse over a link and hover rather than click to see what URL address shows.

One of the most malicious malware programs in 2014 was a so-called Trojan file designed to look like an HTML page from an online banking service, designed to tempt users into clicking bad links and divulging personal information. Your safest strategy: Don’t click financial links in emails; instead, type the correct URL into your browser yourself to go directly to the genuine website for important transactions such as banking.

2. Recognize Safe Extensions

A few file types can be considered safe to open. You can recognize these by their extensions; these are the letters that come after the period in the file name: .GIF (a picture format), .JPG or .JPEG (another picture format), .TIF or .TIFF (an image file format), .MPG or .MPEG4 (a movie),  and .MP3 (a music or sound file).

3. Question Work-related Files

Files used to send work-related information are vulnerable to infection, especially common file types such as .DOC and .DOCX, XLS and .XLSX or PDF. It’s hard to explain, quickly, why these can be written to quickly invade your computer.

Be especially wary of TXT files and files containing macros such as an Office document extension ending with an m (like DOCM). Question these attachments if you’re not expecting to receive them from a particular sender.

4. Avoid Executable Extension Files

Never click on an executable file, which is any file ending in .exe. These often carry malware and viruses. Hackers sometimes try to disguise these files by naming them with two extensions, such as image.gif.exe. It’s the last extension that counts—and .exe is the sign of an executable that will automatically run when you download it. Saying that, legitimate programs such as Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Word or any Web browser also use .exe files to install and launch their programs. If unsure type the complete name into a current web browser, such as firefox.exe and see what search results show you.

Other program file types that might raise red flags and possible harm to your PC include those ending with .scr, .reg, .js, .msi, .hta, .bat, .cmd, .scr, .pif, .vbs, .wsf, .cpl, .jar and more. If it’s a weird file type that you don’t recognize, do not open it. Though again, all of these have legitimate uses, so look up the complete filename to see what shows up. Obviously, if nothing shows up, don’t run the .exe file.

5. Use an anti-virus scanner

Install anti-virus protection software to help guard against the latest onslaught of malware and viruses. Keep up with and install software updates for your operating system and programs such as Microsoft Office to protect yourself from newly identified vulnerabilities.

6. Stop Any Automatic Downloads

Don’t allow your computer to automatically download email attachments. Check your email program to see if it’s trying to “make life easier” by automatically downloading attachments. Disable the option and reserve the judgment call for yourself. At the same time, automatic download of known software you automatically possess holds some risks, albeit much less. Sometimes well-known companies release their software but leave bugs in there that exposes customers. Having downloads set to ask you if now is a good time to do so is best; and always wait a few days unless it appears to be an absolutely critical security issue.

7. Save and Scan any Attachments Before Opening Them

Some email services such as Gmail automatically scan email when it’s delivered and again when you open the message. When you need to open an attachment before you can verify it’s safe, save it to something like a flash drive (often called a “thumb drive”) or a set folder and then manually scan the file or folder with your antivirus program. If the scan comes up clean, you’re safe to open the file.

Finally, whenever you’re in doubt or if you’ve unwittingly opened Pandora’s Box, know when to call in the experts. Geeks on Site can help you deal with email viruses and malware via online remote PC repair delivery as well as traditional onsite, in-home and in-office services. Visit Geeks on Site for quick assistance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.