Malicious software can spread easily via emails. We tell you what to look out for and how to keep your computer safe from threats lurking in email
Q I recently received an email that I thought was from my granddaughter, because it had her name in the header. When it opened I saw many email addresses of people I didn’t recognise, though both mine and my granddaughter’s addresses were on the list.
Then my screen was suddenly awash with red warnings informing me that my PC had been infected by malicious software. This was quickly followed by a Windows security message informing me that I could remove the dozens of infections by clicking the remove button. I did this but nothing happened and because the security notice covered the red messages I was not able to read all of them. In the end I turned off the PC and restarted it.
I scanned the PC using Kaspersky Internet Security 2012 and no problems were found. My granddaughter insists that she didn’t send this message, so was it some sort of hoax and could my computer be infected?
A We didn’t see the email or its effects but what you describe sounds like a spoof email, sent by a spammer’s computer and automatically generated from an email list. These are widely traded online and may contain millions of addresses but it wouldn’t be at all unusual for your email address and your granddaughter’s to end up on the same list and, with a shared surname, say, they could end up side by side as it were.
Then, when you opened the email, possibly clicking a link in the process, the content was designed to bamboozle you by displaying fake virus-infection warnings and fake Windows security warning boxes offering to cure the problem. These kinds of emails are sadly all too common and clicking an OK ‘button’ on a fake Windows security warning (in fact, a small web browser window designed to look just like a Windows security alert) only exacerbates the problem.
That’s probably how you ended up in such a mess, with your PC’s screen full of fake alerts. In the event, and in absence of expert help, switching off the PC was sensible.
As you have since scanned your PC using a reliable tool, such as Kaspersky, and been given the all-clear we think you have little to worry about. But be on guard for suspect messages in the future and, if in doubt, don’t open them. If you want, scam emails can also be forwarded to Action Fraud, which gathers reports about fraud in the UK. Suspect messages should be forwarded to email@example.com, but don’t expect dawn raids on the perpetrators.
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