Email Safety for Parents and Kids
In the first part of this series, we discussed general Internet safety ideas which included ways to build trust in the parent-child relationship using Internet safety as the means. Many people get computers hacked, or get their personal information or passwords stolen every day through unscrupulous email hackers, viruses, trojans and other malware. Many people do not even know how it happened once it did, and are not aware of many email safety issues for both identity protection, computer protection, and most importantly, the protection of our children. This part of the series will focus on some precautions to take while working on an email safety plan in your own home with your children. These precautions are not exhaustive, but are a great place to start sharing with your children to develop a family plan.
1- Unknown sender
– whenever you receive a suspicious email or an email that seems to come from someone you do not know, be sure to mark it with a spam flag or delete it altogether. If you suspect it might be from a friend, you can always move it to a folder labeled “questionable” and reach out to that friend and ask if they sent an email on that specific date and time. Most often, you can check the subject line as well as the “from” line to be sure that there is enough information to trust opening the email. Don’t even open a spam email. When you open a spam email, sometimes there is a tracking pixel that is loaded and it signals the spamming software that your email is live and active, and this will only increase the number of spam messages you will receive. If in doubt, quarantine the email, scan it with a trusted protection software, or delete it.
2- Email subscription services
– Most people who use email are subscribed to one or more email newsletters based off of sites in which they are interested. Many of these email newsletters are sent through software and email marketing companies with good reputations, like Aweber, Constant Contact, iContact, or Infusionsoft. Be sure to know your subscriptions, and if your children have subscriptions, or have to be on certain email subscriptions for classes or clubs, be sure to know the reputation of the email marketing company or platform. If the name seems less mainstream and is from an obscure company, do some research to make sure they require opt-in verifications through email links, because it is much more difficult to spam through these companies that stick to high CAN Spam compliance guidelines. Also, be sure to whitelist those email addresses or add them to your address book, and try to keep your subscriptions to a manageable number so as not to overwhelm your inbox or create situations where you are more likely to open emails because you cannot remember if you subscribed or not. Also, read more on the phishing pointer (#4 below) because sometimes phishing hackers can emulate some of these email marketing companies or newsletters as well. Keep your subscriptions manageable and know who is sending emails to your inbox as well as your kids’ inboxes.
– Unless you are 100% certain any attachment you receive via email is from a trusted source, never open an attachment. Often times, a malicious script or an executable file ending in “.exe” will be disguised with a PDF icon or a Word.doc icon to look harmless, and when the file is opened on your computer or downloaded, it is already too late. Just be sure that whenever you receive and email with an attachment, that you know for sure it is from a trusted source. They always say that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and if you have to send an email to a friend or make a quick phone call to double-check that they actually sent an attachment, it is worth avoiding the headache of having to clean up a hacked computer or email program. Teach your children to never open attachments, or when they are old enough, help them to know how to test attachments to be sure they are safe.
4- Embedded Links
– Many spam emails send links that look harmless, or send a brief message that arouses curiosity to simply get you to click on the link. Never click on a link unless you are 100% sure it is from a trusted source. Often times, a link will be cloaked, and anchor text will be used to make a text link in an email look harmless or even legitimate, with branding, graphics, and an inviting email that seems to be from a company you regularly deal with via email. One easy way to find out if links in an email are legitimate or not is to hover over them (DO NOT CLICK, just hover the mouse over it), and see what the URL is in a little window that pops up in your email program, usually in the bottom left corner. Try this first on some links you already know are safe, and find out where your software reveals the actual true destination of the link in a little message window. This will reveal the true URL and you will often see it is taking you to a site that has nothing to do with the email or company and could be a page with a malicious script or a form asking for personal information. Train your children how to identify suspicious links in emails with this method.
– Similar to the embedded links tip above, some phishing emails will be sent impersonating a bank, credit card company or payment gateway company like Paypal. If you use the same technique and hover over the links and graphics, you will see if they go to the same site and are official. Phishing emails are designed to trick you into believing that some company, whether it is a financial company or another company where you would have an online account, is asking you to reset your password or update your profile, or verify your profile by filling out some information online. Never respond to these unless you are 100% sure they are official. Also, check with the company policies on how they ask for information. Many will tell you in their policies and procedures that they will never send you an email requesting you to update your information. Just be sure to know your company policies and teach your kids to know the procedures of their school accounts or any club accounts they have.
– There are plenty of free and affordable programs available to help protect your email accounts filter suspicious emails and attachments before they are an issue such as those that come packaged with the email program, and alternative paid versions from companies like Norton and McAfee. There are also good free software packages out there that scan your computer and get rid of suspicious files after an event might have happened, such as MalwareBytes.org. Consult with a friend who knows a lot about these kinds of reputable free and paid software applications that can prevent harmful files coming through emails, as well as those that scan your computer and email on a regular basis. Norton and McAfee have great, affordable software versions that will automatically scan emails and attachments and alert you to suspicious email or identified harmful attachments, and are worth their weight in gold!
– Often you will find advertising within a spam email that you open either accidentally or unknowingly, and there is an animated add made to look like your computer is telling you to update a specific program, or that your email is unsafe and you have to download an update to make sure your email and computer are safe. Never click on these ads or pop-ups unless you are 100% certain it is being initiated from a program on your computer you already paid for and is a legitimate protection program already installed. Most of these are spyware, malware, and unwanted advertising engines that will exploit your computer and email program to either hack into your files for personal information, cause disruptions, or superimpose advertising on regular emails and documents within your computer programs that you use daily.
8- Spam Filters
– No software is perfect, but trained spam filters can go a long way, once they get used to filtering out the unwanted emails, and suspicious emails. Email programs these days come with built-in, trainable spam filters but you can often download extensions for free, or pay a minimal fee for added protection. So some research, and ask a techie friend for some recommendations on specific filtering software they have used and employ it for you and for your kids.
9- Desktop email accounts
– If you share a desktop / laptop email program with your family, including the children, such as MS Outloook, Macmail or Thunderbird from Mozilla, you can have multiple email accounts within 1 email client software package. Be sure to go over the setting with your kids and have email filter and safety settings that are adequately covering all accounts.
10- Online email accounts
– Many people and students have online email accounts accessible through a web browser or smart device these days, such as Gmail or Ymail, or MSN. There are extensions that can be implemented as well as spam filters that can be set and trained on those accounts as well, but they are not localized to one machine so you will need to have an accountability plan, such as the ones we discussed in the Internet Safety article previously. Propietery, cloud based email accounts are more difficult to protect, yet the massive companies like Google and Yahoo also invest quite a bit in their server technologies to ensure a good measure of safety for their users. However, family safety plans and some accountability will go further for protection than those companies can provide alone. The same measures should be considered when clicking on any links, opening any attachments or downloading anything from online email accounts as well. The same sinister hackers attempt to use those kinds of accounts as much as the desktop software accounts so the same precautions apply.
– Create strong passwords that have a combination of at least 6 or 8 characters, utilizing at least one lower case letter, one upper case letter, at least one number and one symbol if your email program will allow it. Also, rotate or change your passwords on a monthly basis, or a little less frequently if you do not use email or the Internet very often. Be sure you and your children follow these solid practices and keep your usernames and passwords in a safe location.
– Making regular backups of your computer hard drive as well as archiving and backing up your email accounts that are on your local device is a great practice. Not only are backups a great way to keep the device file count low and operating a peak performance, it is much easier to restore your computer or email software in the event that something is hacked or a software becomes corrupted. If you never make backups, it is only a matter of time for a computer or email service disaster to occur. When you do have an email hack or software issues, your local expert can scan and clean or repair your computer or email program, and you can more easily restore your computer and all of the necessary files to regular operating mode if you make frequent backups.
13- Logging out
– Be sure to log out whenever you are finished using email. This is CRITICAL whenever using email from a public or remote locations such as school, library or some kind of Internet cafe (if those still exist). This should be a common sense, no-brainer, but people who are used to accessing email from home all of the time might forget to log out from public machines leaving their personal emails and potential contact information or passwords available for attack.
In the third part of this series, we will discuss family and kid safety guidelines for social media use and practices.
About the author: – Aaron Schulman is an Internet marketing consultant who is happily married with 3 girls. He and his wife have learned to implement internet and digital safety foundations in their home to protect their home, relationship and their children. In his spare time, he enjoys writing, composing music to relax, playing guitar, and writing guitar reviews on specific models like Seagull guitars. He enjoys helping people through his business, websites, music, research and writing.