advice on e-mail

Quick guide

You can use e-mail software or your ISP's Web-based e-mail.

Consider setting your e-mail preferences to send and receive in Plain Text format not HTML format.

Use effective spam filtering.

Apply the latest security fixes.

Use anti-virus software and keep it up to date.

Back up your e-mail regularly.

E-mail access methods

You can either use e-mail software or you can access your e-mail via the Web.

Using e-mail software

E-mail software (sometimes called an e-mail client) may be a stand-alone software package or it may be bundled within a Web browser. The software downloads your e-mail to your computer and then deletes it from the mail server. Your data is therefore securely held by you (provided your computer is secure) and no-one else. But you must remember to take regular backups and to do your own spam and virus filtering.

Web-based e-mail

Here, you don't use e-mail software at all but access your e-mail via a Web site. The big advantage of Web-based e-mail is that all your e-mail is stored on the Web and so can be accessed wherever you are. However, you have to trust that your hosting company's server is secure against fraudsters, since it is holding your data.

Free Web-based e-mail services sometimes sell your e-mail address to other companies, so you may receive lots of junk e-mail. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) usually give you a choice of using either your own e-mail software or accessing your e-mail via their Web interface. Their Web-based e-mail service may usefully offer spam- and virus-filtering.

Choice of e-mail software

This is the most important piece of software you have (along with your browser) that must be resistant to viruses.

Most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) allow you to use whatever e-mail software (and browser) you choose to access their services. Even if your browser is bundled with e-mail software, you can still choose to use an alternative (stand-alone) e-mail package if you want.

Opera Mail has an advanced means of classifying your e-mail compared with the conventional method of holding e-mails in separate folders. It also offers advanced spam filtering which learns from your particular pattern of e-mail and so is potentially more accurate than generic methods of identifying spam.

Use anti-virus software

An anti-virus package is essential but don't let it give you a false sense of security — the other measures we outline on this page are also vital. Some viruses are known to disable anti-virus software. The vendors release new virus definitions several times a month but there is always a short delay following the appearance of a new virus (or variant), during which time you are vulnerable. Make sure that your virus definitions are updated regularly, preferably automatically.

Choice of e-mail format

Many e-mail messages are in Plain Text format, that is, there are no bold or italic characters, no fancy typefaces and no colour. That's quite adequate for most e-mail: it's quick to prepare and fast and efficient to transmit.

Often there is an option for you to prepare e-mails in HTML format, so that the features mentioned above become possible. HTML is the format of Web pages, so the e-mail you send is like a mini Web page.

Not all e-mail software can read e-mails in HTML format and some users have the facility disabled (see below). E-mail in HTML format should therefore also contain the content in Plain Text format. If the recipient's e-mail software can't read the HTML version, it will instead display the Plain Text version.

HTML-formatted e-mails may contain a virus hidden within their code. If you receive an e-mail only in Plain Text, you can be certain that it does not contain a virus hidden within its body. However, viruses are more commonly transmitted as malicious code within an e-mail attachment and not within their body. The attachment is visible and may arouse your suspicions. The virus will be activated only if you open the attachment.

Some e-mail software has the facility to display incoming e-mails in Plain Text format where both formats exist. Setting this option will prevent viruses hidden in the body of e-mails from being executed.

Spam filtering

If you receive a lot of junk e-mail (spam) you can reduce the virus risk by using an effective means of spam filtering. An e-mail classified as spam will alert you to clicking on a malicious link or opening a malicious attachment.

If you use Web-based e-mail, your e-mail provider will probably give you a spam folder. Don't forget to check it regularly since it may not be very accurate at classifying correctly.

If you use e-mail software you have the ability to train your spam filter according to the nature of the e-mail (genuine and spam) that you receive. This is potentially much more accurate than the generic classification of Web-based e-mail. See our advice on spam.


Remember to include your e-mail folders in the regular backups you take of your work.