Can I Safely Open Suspected Spam?

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C. Corder asked if it's safe to open an email that landed in the spam folder.

I can't promise that it's always 100-percent safe, but with the right precautions, the chance of disaster becomes acceptable.

Some messages are obviously false positives (valid emails that are wrongly identified as spam). For instance, if you sign up for a newsletter and the verification email turns up in your junk folder, your filtering software clearly made a mistake.

On the other hand, if someone you never heard of is offering cheap, Canadian prescription drugs, or a stranger from Nigeria offers you millions, there is absolutely no reason to open that message.

But spam isn't always that obvious. Sometimes, but not often, you may have to open a message to find out if it's legitimate.

Before you do that, your antivirus program should be running and up-to-date. And your mail client--the program or web site on which you read your email--should be set to not display images, or at least not images from an unknown source.

These should be no big deal. You probably already have an up-to-date antivirus program, and practically all email clients default to blocking images from unknown sources.

But just to be sure, check the settings on your email client. In Outlook 2010, click the File tab, then Options in the left pane. In the Outlook Options dialog box, click Trust Center in the left pane. Click Trust Center Settings for various options. If you use Gmail on the Web, go to the Settings page's General tab, and find the "External content" setting.

When you do open a piece of suspected spam, be very cynical, and remember that you're being lied to. Don't answer it, and don't click anything on it.

If it appears to be from someone you know, yet is definitely spam, immediately contact the person who appears to have sent it. And remember that they're a victim, not the culprit. See Am I Mailing Spam? for details.

Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector writes about technology and cinema. Email your tech questions to him at, or post them to a community of helpful folks on the PCW Answer Line forum. Follow Lincoln on Twitter, or subscribe to the Answer Line newsletter, e-mailed weekly.

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