Email is a nightmare for clean freaks. No matter how fastidious you are, it's a good bet your inbox is filthy—swimming with more viruses than your average cesspool. Some email messages are innocuous, but many contain programs that can give hackers control of your computer. Others contain links that take you to web sites that trick you into giving online thieves your personal data.
The bad news is that you'll probably never get rid of it all; the good news is that there are simple steps you can take to scrub away most of it. Here are six simple steps that will put you back in control of your email:
- Vaccinate. All major anti-virus products for home computers contain a mail-scan function. Invest in an anti-virus program, keep it running, and make sure to download the regular virus updates.
- Don't click on the link. "Phishing" scams dupe consumers into turning over their account numbers and other personal data by luring them to web pages that look identical to legitimate sites run by companies such as Citibank, eBay, and PayPal. Never click on a link in an email asking you to update your account information. If you want to know if the request is real, go to the company's web site in a separate browser window and send an email query. Better yet, call the company's customer-support line.
- Leave that attachment alone. Unsolicited email attachments often contain viruses. Opening the attachment launches the virus, sidelining your computer and sending copies of itself to everyone in your email address book. If you aren't expecting the attachment, don't open it. Ever.
- Skip the previews. Some of the more sophisticated viruses spread without any action on your part. As soon as you open a message in the "preview" window of your email program, it can begin installing malicious programs on your computer. Users of the Microsoft® Outlook email program are particularly susceptible. Closing that window so that you have to double-click on a message in order to read it can provide another layer of protection.
- Don't panic. If you suspect hackers may have got hold of your financial data, contact one or all of the three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—and ask them to put a fraud alert on your file. The fraud line for Equifax is 800.525.6285; for Experian is 888.397.3742, and for TransUnion is 800.680.7289.
- Use McAfee® security products and services to help control spam.