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Published: Friday, 10/1/2004

Beware of monster in the mail

Normally you ignore those spam e-mails and their pitches for sexually explicit content, low-interest mortgages, credit-repair, medicines without a prescription, and other junk. However, curiosity gets the best of you, and you open the message.

What the heck. Nobody will know that you did it, right?

Not necessarily.

If the message contains an image, or picture, stored at a remote web server, your e-mail program will connect to the server in order to download the image. When it does, the message s sender can get some interesting information about you.

The sender, for instance, will know that you opened the message and may assume that you are interested in the topic. Your e-mail address may go on special-interest spammers lists for folks attracted to certain kinds of pornography, those with bad credit, or health problems treated with certain kinds of medicine.

In addition, the sender will find out that your e-mail address is a real address. Spammers often shotgun millions of messages to e-mail addresses composed at random, to search for valid addresses.

Windows XP users who have downloaded Windows Service Pack 2 (SP2) already are protected. SP2 is a package of security and other updates. If you haven t downloaded it yet, go to the Microsoft site (www.microsoft.com), click on Updates, and get busy.

SP2 configures Outlook Express to block remote images. When it happens, you ll see a notice in the External Message Information Bar. If the pictures are from a person or company that you know and trust, you can easily get them. Just click on Click here to download pictures.

If you are not concerned about the privacy threat, you also can configure Outlook Express to stop blocking external content. With Outlook running, go to Tools on the tool bar and then to Options and Security. Uncheck the box is checked after Block images and other external content in HTML e-mail. When done, click on Apply and OK.

There are other ways to avoid this privacy threat. One step involves downloading e-mail, and then going offline to read it. SP2 also reconfigures Outlook so that the program no longer will try to go back online if you are reading e-mail offline.

When reading offline, your e-mail program may try to download the external content, but it will be impossible because there is no connection to the Internet. Going offline is inconvenient. It also may not be possible on corporate, school, and other networks.

Another way is to disable the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) feature in email. HTML makes it possible for e-mail to have pictures, colors, interesting fonts, and even animations. Disabling the feature returns to the plain text format that once was the only option for messages. It also wipes out the privacy threat from downloading remote images.

To make the change in Outlook Express, go to Tools, Options, click on the Read tab, check Read all messages in plain text and click Apply and OK.

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