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Basic Steps To Keep You Safe From Email Viruses

Updated on August 6, 2010

With the completely out of control proliferation of email viruses here is a very basic guide on how to protect your system from viruses brought into your computer via mail. These guidelines also apply to Microsoft Outlook, Mozilla Thunderbird, and other email clients, even though many of them have various built-in virus protection layers. If you use these guidelines, you'll know that you will have minimized the chances of your system getting infected to virtually zero.

Do not open Word files ending in .DOC (Ask your e-correspondent to first save the document either as an .HTML or web page, or as an .RTF or Rich Text Format file) Most viruses spread as Word Macro viruses.

RTF files are purely text files and do not contain executable code like the ones found in .DOC macros.

If the file attachment is RTF, do not immediately assume it really is an RTF file. It might be a .DOC file renamed as .rtf. If you double-click an RTF file which is really a DOC file, Word will run and you might get infected with a macro virus. Instead, click on the START Button - Programs - Accessories - Word Pad, and open the RTF file from there.

Then, when WordPad is running (note that this is not Microsoft Word, not by a long shot), open the supposed RTF file that was emailed to you. Click on File - Open then in the window that asks for a file name, look for the rectangle near the lower lefthand corner of the window that asks for the File Type. Click on the black downward-pointing arrow and look for "Rich Text Format" so that only files ending in .RTF will appear in the list of "open-able" files.

Choose the file (I assume you know where in your hard disk the file attachment was sent), then click on OK.

If you see a whole bunch of weird characters then it was not an RTF file but was a Word file that was simply renamed (maliciously or accidentally). And don't worry... macro viruses will not run if you open a Word document using WordPad, and the best thing is that it is a program that you already have included on your Windows XP or Vista system.

If the file you opened is a true RTF file, then you will immediately see recognizable text. You can even print it out.

There are some HTML (web pages) files that contain code that automatically runs as soon as you view the web page in your browser, so watch out! You can, however, open the HTML page in Notepad in order to view the source with no danger.

If the attached file ends in .GIF or .JPG, then it is an image or a graphic. Your drawing program will be used to open it. No viruses can be launched by viewing GIF/JPG files, and even if someone were to rename an infected .DOC file as .GIF or .JPG, Microsoft Word will not run if you double-click on the GIF file, because Word will be superseded by the drawing program: When your computer sees a file ending in GIF or JPG, it will run a graphics program (not Word) if you want to open the file. It is theoretically possible to include a virus in a GIF/JPG file, but that virus would not be executable by viewing. It would have to be consciously extracted in another manner, so don't worry about it.

If the attached file ends in .AVI or .MPEG/.MPG, then that is a movie file that will be run by your Movie Player. Depending on where it came from it can be riddled with viruses. If it was downloaded from a torrent site, your chances of getting infected are off the scale.

If the attached file ends in PPT, that's a PowerPoint file. There is a potential risk here. It would be better if you ask your e-correspondent to just first save the PPT file as a web page or HTML file.

If the attached file ends in SCR, that's a screen saver. Just delete it because viruses can hide in screensavers. If you simply must have that screensaver, invest in the latest version of a respected antivirus scanner and run it on the file before installing.

If the attached file ends in XLS, that's a spreadsheet file. Again, ask your e-correspondent to save it first as a web page or HTML file. If you really need to manipulate the figures in the spreadsheet, you'll just have to open the XLS file. Just make sure you have the latest antivirus scanner on and scanning!

Remember that double-clicking on most files attached to incoming email, while you are running your email program, will automatically run the program designed to open such a file (Word opens doc files, Excel opens xls files, etc). You will have no control over this. It is, therefore, better to run a non-email program first (such as Wordpad or Notepad), and then File-Open the attached file while you are in Wordpad, not while you are running your email program.

There are a lot of computer users out there who do not use any form of virus protection because they have heard the horror stories of Symantec Norton or McAfee Antiviral Software being such ungodly resource pigs that slow down the fastest system to a crawl. Although that was true up to about a year ago, this is no longer the case. The manufacturers have taken considerable steps to minimize resource use and many users can now happily run these programs without taking a huge performance hit. You still have to take a somewhat huge hit in the wallet though, so why not just go to www.avg.com and download the free version of their superlative antivirus program? I've used it for years as my only virus prevention and I'm absolutely evangelistic about it. AVG Free is phenomenal, it does pretty well anything that the big pay to play programs do, and it's free free free!

I know it can be such a hassle to take all these steps to keep from becoming virus infected, but why risk losing at least half a day getting your hard disk reinitialized and restored through your backup (you do have a backup... right?) if ever you get hit by a virus? Stay safe out there. It's a dangerous internet!

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    • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

      Hal Licino 

      8 years ago from Toronto

      Completely and totally wrong. Viruses can and do infect .avi and .mpg/.mpeg. The only file formats that cannot be infected are text formats like .txt and .html. Feel free to check the Symantec, McAfee or any other legit virus encyclopaedia site for confirmation.

      I love it when people come onto a Hub and contradict me when I'm right and they're so wrong that they don't have a leg to stand on, therefore I really appreciated your comment. It was good for a laugh.

    • profile image

      John 

      8 years ago

      "If the attached file ends in .AVI or .MPEG/.MPG, then that is a movie file that will be run by your Movie Player. Depending on where it came from it can be riddled with viruses. If it was downloaded from a torrent site, your chances of getting infected are off the scale."

      I call this BS. AVIs or MPGs are, in that regard, no different from, say, GIFs or JPGs.

      If you ever get a virus from such files, it's because a flaw in the viewer program. But that is pretty much like what would happen to any other kind of "non executable" file... even JPGs. JPGs, AVIs, MPGs, GIFs, MKVs...

      It's completely different from a file format that actually contains executable code, like DOCs, EXEs etc.

      You shouldn't download copyrighted content, of course, but please no FUD.

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