A 3-Step Guide to Better Email Security

November 1, 2020

At some point you’re going to have to share important documents between family members or even legal counsel. This is especially true if you're caring for a loved one or trying to manage your own affairs remotely. But emailing important personal information or sensitive financial data can leave you vulnerable to hackers. Luckily, you can protect your sensitive online information with a little preparation and a few easy to use (and easy to setup!) tools.

Here’s a simple guide to email security, what it is, how it works, and a few easy ways you can beef up your email protection and protect the inbox of your less tech savvy loved ones to make sure important data stays where it belongs.

What is Email Protection? 

At its simplest, email protection is a better way to filter emails, block and flag spam, prevent and report identity theft, and limit your vulnerability to dangerous emails. The three main components of modern email security are:

  1. Email spam filters
  2. Firewalls and antivirus software
  3. Phishing protection and email best practices

No email security is perfect. But these three easy to use layers of email protection can go a long way to safeguarding your communications with friends, loved ones, and important business while minimizing malware exposure and data loss.

What does it mean when your email is "hacked?"

Generally, when someone has been “hacked” it means that malware was installed on their computer. Malware is short for "malicious software" and it includes programs that capture and transmit your sensitive information — like banking, credit card, and personal ID information — back to thieves. The good news is that most modern "hacking" isn’t like what you see in the movies.

In fact, almost all “hacking” today — a whopping 94 percent — is done by installing malware via spam emails. Which means, if you can avoid and filter spam emails you are far safer than you think. The bad news is that spam emails are everywhere, and they're not as easy to detect as they used to be. Here's how to protect your email from today's modern hackers.

How can you protect your email?

The best email security tools are surprisingly simple. In fact, you probably already have (free) access to much of this software. Here are four of the most important email security tools you can start using today:

Best additional spam filters

Hackers send out 54 billion spam emails every single day. Most of these are what’s known as “phishing” scams where they try to make users believe the emails are legitimate. Seniors are particularly vulnerable to phishing email scams, especially when the emails are disguised to look like they come from official sources (banks, hospitals, or government agencies) or family members. When users unwittingly click the links or open attachments in spam emails it installs malware onto their systems, and their information is transmitted to malicious actors.

The best way to protect yourself from this kind of email fraud is to prevent this kind of spam from ever reaching your inbox. You can block specific emails in your spam filter settings in Gmail, Outlook, Hotmail, Yahoo, or Apple Mail settings by adding them to the list of spam emails.

Gmail has one of the best default spam filters on the market — they automatically block emails that have been blacklisted — but it’s also worth looking at additional spam filters, like Mailwasher, for extra protection. If you can increase the spam filter in your settings, do so. 

One final tip is to train your spam filter by flagging suspicious emails or unwanted advertisements as “spam” instead of just deleting them. This will train your existing inbox email spam filters to flag and remove more unwanted content before you ever have to see it.

Antivirus software

Antivirus software is designed to help protect your computer against the latest and most well-known threats. If you do accidentally click a link or open an attachment from a phishing email, then good antivirus software should attempt to warn you about the situation and possibly even contain the malware before it spreads.

The good news is that if you use Apple products, you’re largely protected from viruses since they’re not typically functional for the Mac ecosystem. If you have a PC, you need to install some level of antivirus software on your computer — even if you’re careful!

McAfee Antivirus and Norton Antivirus software have been the gold standard of virus and malware protection for decades. They also typically include spam filters and additional email protection. Newcomer, Kaspersky is also a great option with plans that include multiple device protection for less than $30 a year.

Image protection

It's not just links or attachments you need to worry about in emails. Even the images from spam emails can be used to download malware onto your machine.

To prevent this, you’ll want software that restricts the images within emails from being shown unless you’re absolutely sure it’s from a trusted source. You can also configure this setting in your inbox to only open images and attachments from trusted sources.

Data encryption

Another vulnerability of email is that your data can be intercepted while it's in transit to its intended recipient. To keep the data secure while it's being transferred, data encryption can help make the files difficult to decode and unreadable to hackers.

How can you make your emails safer?

Editing your inbox settings and downloading the proper email protection software is crucial to email security. But the most important part of a secure inbox is you. Here are a few steps and email best practices you can do to help ensure that your emails are as safe as possible:

1. Never open emails from unknown senders

If you don’t recognize the email address or user who sent it, don’t open it. It's more than likely a phishing scam and not worth looking into any further. 

2. Double check the sender of business emails

Most phishing scam emails are designed to look just like real emails from businesses or services you recognize. A popular example is an email from hackers claiming to be PayPal or Netflix. If the email address includes a long string of numbers or letters, don’t trust it. Also keep an eye out for any emails with strange endings like .biz or .info. These are clever ways to disguise spam emails.

Often in these emails, they’ll state time-sensitive information such as “your bill is late” or “your account will be closed” and encourage you to click the link to login into your account. However, you should never login from any account via email. Always do this the long-way by going to the service provider themselves.

Usually, it's easy to spot these types of emails because the email address will not match the service company at all. 

3. Never open attachments or click links

Unless you absolutely know the sender of the email, never open a link or attachment in an email. This is the biggest way that people accidentally download malware and compromise their online security. With one simple click, you can authorize malware to install itself on your machine rendering it vulnerable or even causing permanent data loss. 

This also goes for the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of emails. Though you may think you’re getting rid of these types of pesky spam emails, you’ll actually be making things worse. If you want to unsubscribe, use the “mark as spam” button at the TOP of the email in your email provider, not the link in the email.

4. Use stronger passwords

Hackers can use software to test thousands of combinations of passwords per second. The best way to defend against this is to use a password that is as complex as possible. 

Never use something simple like a name or birthday. Use a variety of lower case, upper case, numbers, and symbols. Most experts recommend that users think of a phrase they can use to associate with their password, making it impossible for hackers to guess.

5. Change your passwords often (every 3 months)

It's not enough that your password needs to be strong. Your password should also be frequently changed so that even if it is infiltrated, the hacker won’t have access to your information for long. The best practice for changing your email password is every three months or whenever there's any suspicious activity. Three months might sound like a really short period of time, but regularly updating your email password is crucial if you want to keep your information safe.

Changing your password often means that you will have to start using safe online password security tools (which are much safer than passwords you can easily remember) since you won't be able to easily remember that many passwords. Also, it's important not to use the same password for multiple sites. When you use the same password for everything it means that your inbox, Facebook profile, and online bank account are only as secure as the weakest website you use. Keep passwords separate and fresh and you'll stop a lot of scams before they start.

6. Consider encryption services

If you do you have to transmit sensitive documents, consider using an encryption service or software to send them securely. This will make it nearly impossible for thieves to be able to see the files and gain access to your personal information.

7. Avoid public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi is convenient, but it can also be a place where your information is the most vulnerable. Since everything you do will be transmitted across their Wi-Fi system, hackers will be able to intercept it. In general, avoid sending emails or accessing sensitive information when you’re out in public.

If you have to do anything sensitive on public wifi, try to conduct online business in an app, not a web browser, as apps have different and more robust security protocols than most browsers. For example, don't do any banking on chase.com — use the Chase mobile app instead.

Best alternative to email security

Email scams are a huge problem today. And unfortunately, we have to send more personal data than ever online these days. The best way to share sensitive documents with others is to skip emails altogether. Try using an app like Pillar instead of email and avoid confusing spam filters and phishing scams.

With Pillar, you can easily add trusted users who can access all the necessary files without worry of prying eyes. Using multiple layers of industry-leading protection, no one except you will have access to this information.

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