What Happens When You Opened A Spam Email By Mistake?

All of us are bombarded by lots of emails daily in our busy daily lives. We all face a common problem: are all the many emails received safe to read or open? What are the risks associated with opening a spam email and what can we do if we opened one up by mistake?

In this article, you’ll learn about spam emails and how they can harm you. This article will also provide quick remedies if you have mistakenly opened a spam email, clicked links, or downloaded a malicious attachment.

What To Do If You Opened Spam Email By Mistake?

So you’re panicking because you opened a potential spam email. Can opening just an email get you hacked? Well, the answer to that question depends on what you did after opening the email. The general rule for emails is that you don’t get any virus or privacy hack just by opening it unless the email client allows scripting.

The problem arises with what happened after opening the email. Below are two scenarios and some remedies.

Scenario 1: Did You Read Just the Email?

mouse pointing in an inbox

You might’ve seen other articles elsewhere discussing the dangers of opening spam emails. But as stated earlier, there’s no harm in merely opening it. If you just skimmed through the email, you’re safe.

But while you’re at it, give a little more thought to whether the email is legit/harmless or may even be harmful.  Could it potentially be a spam email? First, check the sender’s email address. If the email appears to be strange (or unrecognizable) or from someone that you didn’t know, the email is potentially malicious. 

Then, look at the message. Most spam emails have non-personal tones. These emails create a sense of urgency—or panic, rather— that’s out of place. And more strikingly, these emails often request information from you like a password confirmation, password reset, or card verification.

Keep in mind that legit companies won’t ask for confidential information from you. That’s a rule of thumb. So if the email asks for answers regarding security questions or card numbers, that’s likely a spam and dangerous email. If you received this kind of email perform the following steps:

  1. Don’t click any link or image. Clicking a link or image may either redirect you to a page or download something. To prevent viruses from entering your computer, don’t interact with any links or images unless you are very sure of the authenticity of the source, or have a reputable anti-virus software that can do real time scan of the link before opening it. Just read the text.
  2. Don’t reply. The email sender may pretend to be someone from a reputable company. If they’re asking for confidential information, they’re scammers and hackers. The best solution for this is not to reply at all
  3. Report the email as spam. Every email has a report feature. Reporting them can help authorities fight phishing scams and identity theft. Also, it allows the email service provider to segregate spam emails from legit emails.

a. Reporting in Gmail: At the top right corner of the screen, you’ll see an exclamation point icon. Click this to report the email as spam.

b. Reporting in Yahoo Mail: Click the More icon on the interface. Then, click Mark as Spam.

c. Reporting in Outlook: First, select all the emails you want to mark as spam. Then, click Junk (or Spam). All these emails will go to the spam folder.

4. Delete the email immediately. Don’t let that potentially dangerous email sit in your inbox. You might accidentally click the links and cause harm to your accounts.

Scenario 2: Clicked a Link or Downloaded the Attachment? What You Can Do

Clicking links or downloading attachments from a non-legitimate source can be potentially harmful to your device(s). Links can either redirect you to a page or download something. If you download attachments carelessly, it can run virus scripts on your computer.

Computer viruses can affect the performance of your computer. It can delete or hide your files without you knowing. And what’s even worse is that it can spy on you and steal all information stored in your computer. In the succeeding sections of this article, you’ll learn more about the risks associated with spam emails.

Links that redirect to another page can be a phishing scam. In this scam, the landing page can look like a reputable company’s website. For example, the site may imitate the design and interface of American Express or some other reputable companies. And just by entering your user id and password you would have given the scammer future access to your account and do whatever they want with it, none of which would be good for you. You may also give away other confidential information which inevitably leads to some sort of identity theft.

If ever you provided confidential information or downloaded the attachment of a dangerous email, here’s what you need to do:

  1. Scan computer for viruses using antivirus software. Some viruses or malware can execute themselves without human interaction. Moreover, spyware can run in the background without you knowing. The best solution for this is to run a full computer scan and set a schedule for an automatic, pro-active scan by the software. 
  2. Regularly update the virus database. Antivirus software like McAfee or Norton regularly updates their database for the latest viruses. Before scanning, make sure you’ve updated your antivirus software’s database.
  3. Change passwords. Whenever you unknowingly provided login credentials to an online scammer, change your passwords immediately. Make sure that your passwords are not too obvious, and it should be an alphanumeric combination that’s no less than ten characters to minimize risk to you of the scammer being able to guess your password through some software.
  4. Report the email before deleting it. Reporting the email helps prevent malicious emails from reaching your inbox. It also allows authorities to track down these scammers and determine potentially deceptive emails.
  5. Disconnect all your devices from that account. Due to multi-device integration, cybercriminals can now hack your phone if it’s connected to a laptop or tablet. It’s best to disconnect all your devices from the hacked account to prevent theft of confidential information like credit card passwords, CVV numbers, or passcodes.
  6. Report the incident to the local authorities. If you think that the hackers have penetrated any or all your accounts, report to authorities immediately. You can:
      • Report to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regarding phishing scams
      • Report to the FTC identity theft center for identity theft cases
      • Report to local authorities (i.e., sheriff)
      • Visit StaySafeOnline.org for additional resources about cybercrime
      • File a fraud alert on a credit bureau to put a red flag on your credit report for potential fraud due to cybercrime

What Are the Risks Associated With Spam Emails?

The risks of opening spam emails depend on what you did after opening it. In the suggested remedies above, you’ve learnt it’s not dangerous to just open a spam email on your laptop or mobile device without clicking any of the links or opening any attachments. If you clicked links and attachments from scammers, you may be exposed to any or a combination of the risks below:

Phishing Scams

Phishing is a widespread cybersecurity threat today. It can target a private individual or an organization. According to the Symantec Security Internet Report of 2019, the main victims of phishing are employees of small organizations. Moreover, the report stated that the malicious email rate is 1 in 412 emails.

Many employees also fall for phishing scams that pose as official work files (e.g., invoices, receipts), tricking them into downloading it. In fact, 48 percent of malicious emails pose as office files. This occurrence leaves the organization and the target’s personal files at risk of identity theft.

Computer Viruses

Viruses can affect your computer if you download malicious attachments. The virus can not only seriously harm your system, but it can also duplicate all your files and send it to the hacker’s address. The virus may also collect information like location and daily tasks and even record your screen. You won’t feel safe anymore when that happens!

Once the virus is on your computer, it will replicate itself and transfer to other devices like external drives, mobile phones, and tablets. This can cause a widespread privacy hack on your devices, including those belonging to the people you communicate with who are sent malicious content, perhaps via your address book.

Identity Theft

When malware copies all your private information and sends it to the hacker, it can use your information to commit cybercrime. The criminal can create credit card accounts, deplete your savings, or use your name when committing illegal acts. With your identity stolen, you’ll be in big trouble with the authorities and it can affect your personal and professional life as well.

Malware Threats

Aside from viruses, which is also a type of malware, other types like adware, spyware, and ransomware pose a severe threat to your internet security. Do you remember the ILOVEYOU virus back in 2000? This virus affected millions of Windows computers and left many people vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Even today, Symantec’s report showed that malware threats remain prevalent and have become even more complex. Cybercrime groups continue to attack organizations with newer versions of malware. In 2018, Symantec blocked around 144.3 million malware for Windows OS and 4.2 million malware for Mac OS.

How Can You Protect Yourself From Malicious Emails?

As discussed in the previous section, spam emails can bring a lot of risks to your online security. There will come a time that you’ll receive a malicious email. It is inevitable.  But when that time comes, you must be able to distinguish the fake from the legitimate ones. 

In 2015, Intel Security conducted a “phishing quiz” to 19,000 respondents across 144 countries.

How many people do you think got it right? Is it 40 percent of the respondents? Or 50 percent? The results are surprising because only three percent were able to distinguish fake and legitimate emails. And more alarmingly, the 97 percent who had a hard time are vulnerable to real spam emails in the future.

Where do you think you belong? Are you part of the three percent or the 97 percent? Whether or not you’re good at spotting fake emails, it’s best to have mitigating factors in place. 

So here are some suggestions to protect yourself from the dangers of spam emails:

1. Install an Antivirus Software

Install a high quality, reputable anti-virus software such as Norton or McAfee on all your connected devices.  The antivirus software can easily detect malicious files on your devices or even stop a potential attack in real-time. The cost of the software is a pittance compared to the risks/dangers you will face without one.  If you need a bit more information about the best  antivirus software out there, check out this website.

2. Maintain Different Email Accounts for Different Uses

If you want to keep things organized, having multiple email addresses is considered the best practice. It also helps mitigate the risk of cyberattacks. Using one email address for both work and personal life can expose you to multiple threats.

It’s best to keep work and personal emails separate. As stated earlier, cybercriminals target organizations in phishing scams. If you use your work email as a private email, hackers can also access your private files and information.

3. Set-up Spam Filters on Your Email

Today, email services like Gmail have sophisticated algorithms to detect spam emails. However, you may still encounter random emails reaching your inbox. If you think that the email is spam, mark it as spam and block the sender.

4. Backup Your Files Regularly

File backups are more of a general security protocol than a specific protocol for malicious emails. But in case a virus from a spam email messes up your computer, having a backup can restore your computer to a healthy state.

5. Refrain From Giving Your Email to Untrusted Websites

Sometimes, websites ask for your email. Perhaps, they want you to receive a newsletter or product updates. While there’s not much harm in that, there are hackers out there who are stealing emails from these websites. Or, much worse, some websites sell visitor information to other parties without your consent.

So when giving your email, choose only reputable websites and don’t permit them to sell your information. The best way to prevent them from selling your information is by not providing them any kind of information. But if you’re sure about the website’s reputation, check first if they comply with the State’s data privacy laws. Then, they must ask you if you’d like your information to be processed within their system. If you opt in, that also means they can sell your data to interested parties. 

If the website doesn’t do any of those mentioned in the previous paragraph, stop interacting with them. It’s too risky for you and your internet security.

Conclusion

The mere opening of a spam email is generally harmless. It is the links and attachments contained in the email that you need to be much more careful about.  When performing online activities, you must always remember to do things that will not affect your cybersecurity and privacy, including the exercise of restraint and caution in dealing with doubtful or spam emails.

Spam emails, with their malicious links and attachments, bring real risks that can affect your productivity, personal affairs, and professional dealings. It brings harm like identity theft, malware attacks, and cybercrime. However, there are ways to prevent this from happening, as we have outlined throughout the article. By being aware and educated about the potential risks, and having the right protection when you go about your daily myriad online activities, you can significantly reduce your exposure to risks.

So, be careful and be vigilant all the time in our fast-moving world where cyber criminals can strike from anywhere, and mostly anonymously. .  If in doubt, stop, think and ensure you have the tools for self-protection before going any further.

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