Email Safety: Spam, Scams, and Attachments

By Corbin HartwickUpdated on November 22, 2017

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Email was one of the first major commercial applications of the Internet, and it's still popular today. It provides a simple way to quickly send messages to people we know and trust, whether they're on the other side of town or on the other side of the world. Unfortunately, since email is so fast and easy-to-use, some troublemakers have taken to using it as a weapon. Some just want to irritate people by clogging up their inboxes and slowing down their computers, while others are looking to steal people's private information or damage their computers. Still others try to actively swindle people out of money over email.

The following are explanations of some of the more common types of computer security threats that you might encounter over email.


This email threat was named after a famous Monty Python's Flying Circus comedy sketch in which a brand of canned pork (of the same name) had to be served alongside every other dish in a restaurant. Following this concept, the word was adopted to mean things that appear everywhere, even when they aren't wanted. Thus, the term "spam" now commonly refers to unwanted emails that contain advertisements (which are often fake), fake virus warnings and other forms of chain letters (i.e. emails that ask you to share them with your friends to make something good happen or prevent something bad from happening), and other trivial information. Most spam is simply meant to irritate people by clogging up their email inbox, making it more difficult for them to store or find emails that are actually important.

See our How to Stop Spam Email tutorial for more information on spam and how to get rid of it.

Phishing scams

Phishing scams are a type of spam that is actually dangerous. Instead of simply trying to annoy people, phishing scams attempt to trick people into giving up personal information, or download a virus or other malicious program onto their computer. They often do this by offering some sort of fake award or ability to enter a fake contest, or by scaring a person into believing that something is wrong with their bank account or other website account. In some cases, perpetrators of phishing scams will attempt to disguise their emails to look like they are from well-known companies or organizations. There are even some phishing scams, known as "advance-fee fraud", in which scammers will try to steal money from people by falsely promising to pay them in exchange for helping with some sort of money transfer.

See our Phishing Scams and Advance-Fee Fraud tutorials for more information on these dangerous types of spam, and how to avoid them.

Unsafe attachments

Some phishing scams or other forms of spam will ask you to open or download a file attached to the email for more information, or to complete some sort of task. This is almost never a good idea, as these attachments will often contain viruses or other malware programs. These can damage your computer, or even give someone unauthorized access to your computer files or other personal information. Generally, you should only open or download attachments from emails sent by people or organizations that you trust, and only if you're sure that the email isn't spam or a phishing scam. Fortunately, our other tutorials in this section will give you hints on what to look for in an email in order to determine whether or not it's legitimate.

Now you know about some of the common dangers to your Internet security that come over email. The other tutorials in this section of the course will explain them in greater detail, and offer strategies on how to avoid or get rid of them.