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January, 2006:

Color In Email Dangerous!

“What’s so wrong with using colors and different fonts in email?

This is a question I’m frequently being asked. People say that they feel their messages are more interesting, more effective and in short better, thanks to nicely formatted emails.

Obviously they are right, it’s true!

Unfortunately it’s not the whole picture. (Bare with me, this is easily explained, but takes a few words.)

The design of the Internet did not take into account criminal abuses and activities. Both large and small crime organizations have discovered the criminal potential of the Internet. People in general are naive and like to think the best of people. Which certainly applies to at least 80-98%. It’s that last minor percent that creates the problems for the rest of us.

We have viruses, which are small programs written to take advantage of 1) naive users and 2) commonly existing conditions that allows this program to spread and infect others too. Once infected it causes destruction. A virus by definition requires a user to activate it.

Then we have worms. They are like viruses but they don’t require any user to activate them. They utilize design flaws that can be used automatically, to do their destructive deeds. (In the rest of the document I don’t differentiate between viruses and worms, but I want you to know the difference.)

Depending on how well a computer has been made and configured, the damage may be big or small. A viruses typically spreads VERY fast across the Internet. Wrecking destruction and chaos.

So what does this have to do with colored emails you may ask?

Let me set the scene. When you format the email you are using something which adds instructions that can be understood by the email recipient. These instructions are formatted using the same code as is being used to create the web pages on the Internet.

It uses text that contains links, which when clicked on takes you to another location. This is known as HyperText. The pages are formatted using something called a Markup Language as it allows you to create a layout for a formatted page. Together it’s called HTML. (Hyper Text Markup Language.)

When you start changing colors etc, your email program are using html instructions to do so.

When you have your email program configured to display html emails, you cannot see the instructions that make up the email. These instructions can, and do in the case of viruses, cause destruction. It’s that destructive code that damages your computer, and then spreads to your friends.

Viruses are like chain-mail. They are also primarily infecting through email.

An effective way of not getting infected is to not process the html code in emails. You can turn it off by changing the settings in your email program (Insert instructions for Outlook & O.Express.). It often also applies to pictures. Flaws in the design of the instructions that displays pictures, allows them to contain destructive instructions. Any attached file can obviously also contain viruses.

This paints a sore and dangerous picture. What is one to do?

Frankly, unless you want to be part of the problem you have one recourse. Educate all your friends and relatives about these notes and stop using html in emails.

Using anti-virus software does not fully solve the problem as they are always one step behind the virus writers. The ability to identify a virus as a virus depends on the virus to be found first. With a small exceptions, this requires the virus to be detected before they can even start protecting users against it.

So you see the anti-virus effort is no guarantee at all. It is however a vital start.

Various security tools used to block unwanted communication does not detect viruses either as they are hidden inside what looks like legitimate html emails. Or they are hidden inside html pages on the Internet.

As it is all web pages are also potential carriers of destructive instructions (instructions are also called code regardless of being destructive or not. Programmers usually refers to instructions as code.)

What I’m saying here is that simply visiting the wrong web site could infect you. If that occurs then make sure you contact their ISP and notify them. (Link to how to identify someones ISP.

[This is how you identify the ISP behind a web site. Go to www.internic.net/whois.html and enter the domain name (for example infectedsite.com). At the bottom of the result it says DNS servers. Make a note of the dotted number (for example 123.234.123.123) next to DNS1. Then goto http://arin.net and enter the number in the top window where it says Search Whois). In the result OrgName: will be the heading for the ISP. They will usually have an email address for abuse. Like abuse@isp.com. Send them an email with as many specifics as you have of what happened.]

There are website so infected that they will destroy windows completely and turn it into a door stop. Your only recourse is to completely erase your computer and reinstall windows. (There are other options besides windows but that is beyond this document.)

To be on the Internet and try to remain ignorant is at a minimum dangerous. There were at some point various areas like in Los Angeles, Detroit and New Orleans, where you don’t let women and children walk at night or even during the day. Unfortunately the Internet can be the same for your computer, and any information it may contain.

What you CAN do is to cut down on your vulnerability profile. To cut down on things that are most prone to cause damage. First step is to not write html emails, or display them. Educate friends and family and help creating a grass root activity.

Make sure you have up to date anti-virus software, which checks for updates daily, not weekly or monthly. Keep your computer up to date with security patches.

Finally if you install a program called tripwire you can detect any changes done to files. Tripwire is a program which takes notes of all files and recognizes any changes made to them, and notifies you.

Preferably Tripwire should be installed as soon as the system is built, so as to not allow any existing condition to remain hidden.

All these steps are additional work. But for most of us it’s better than being infected. Plus you become part of the solution, not the problem,as your computer is less likely to spread viruses. More than once have I seen computers becoming reinfected by computers that were infected by that computer in the first place. Or as they say, “What goes around comes around”.

Plus, you would not walk around in traffic, or the bad part of town without paying attention to your surroundings. Be aware of your computers behavior and note if it changes. You may have been infected or broken into.