Five Ways to Spot Harmful Email Attachments

Email attachments are a way of life in this day and age. They make things much simpler, but they also make it a lot easier for people who want to steal information or generally cause problems.
Even with antivirus programs and security in place, every user needs to watch for attachments that may be harmful. Here are five ways to help you tell a harmless attachment from a harmful one:

1. Verify the Attachment Extension Type.
If you know what sort of attachments you normally get, it makes this step a lot easier. Three examples of attachment types typically seen in an office and home environment are .pdf, .docx, .xlsx. Watch for extension types that are unfamiliar and perhaps volatile, such as extensions that end with the letter “m.” This type of extension indicates a file that contains macros. Like .exe files, macros can run processes in the background that you might not even notice.

2. Watch Out for Archives.
Zipped files are inherently dangerous because they need to be interacted with in order to see their contents. Curious users may very well have the files unzipped and acting before they even question what harm the files could do. Unzipped malicious files can do plenty of harm. Viruses and worms can be executed from archives, for example. Pay close attention to the archives and zipped files themselves, as well as who is sending them.

3. Pay Attention to the Sender.
Do what you can to make sure the sender is legitimate. If you see sender names you don’t recognize, names with random capitalization, or misspelled names, the email probably comes from a sender who is not legitimate. By this point, most users know not to trust the infamous “Nigerian prince” by any name. However, when it comes to email attachments, the truth really is in the sender’s name.

4. Look at the Email Itself.
If the sender’s name and domain seems convincing, look at the message itself. If mention is made of winning something, of money, or of asking you to click on a link of any sort, you have a good sign that someone is trying to trick you. Such deception typically isn’t subtle, but pay attention nevertheless.

5. Don’t Ignore Your Antivirus Program’s Warnings.
Antivirus programs exist for a reason. When they mark an attachment as dangerous, they mean it. If there’s no warning but you’re still not certain, you can always run a quick scan on the attachment itself, per your program’s instructions. Antivirus programs may be a bit touchy and might make a problem out of a PDF, but when it comes to protection from email attachments, they are invaluable.

Ultimately, the way to spot harmful email attachments is to keep your eyes open and pay attention to what arrives in your inbox. Be smart with attachments and always use your best judgment.