Can you get a virus just by opening an email?
March 19, 2013 2:53 PM   Subscribe

Using Gmail, I opened a strange message and now I'm worried it may have done something to my computer. Does this make sense?

Gmail has a little paperclip symbol on the right side of the screen that tells you a message has an attachment. Usually there's an option of whether or not I want to open the attachment (with PDFs, .rars and images that are cached elsewhere on the web), but sometimes images just open automatically when I read the message. This happens with messages from a couple of people I know, and while I don't understand how they get through, it's not worrisome.

But yesterday I received an extremely suspicious email that was, apparently, nothing but an image, and now I'm worried that it may have done something to my computer. The email was sent at 2:49 AM from a university address in Eastern Michigan, and I had no idea what it was about before opening it. It looks like some kind of lottery scam of a type I've never seen before. The message is all text, but must be formatted as an image, because when I try to reply there's no text to quote. Anyway, the thing that worries me is that it opened automatically when I read the message, there's a paperclip but no other sign of attachments.

Is this how viruses spread now? My computer seems to be fine, and my antivirus program hasn't made any complaints, but I'm still worried because of the extreme weirdness of this Email.
posted by Kevin Street to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Some spammers use images to bypass spam filters as those look for specific word combinations and can not read images, while you obviously can read such text.
posted by aroberge at 3:06 PM on March 19, 2013

Did it "do anything to your computer"? Doubt it very much. You didn't download or run anything, it just displayed an image.
posted by kindall at 3:11 PM on March 19, 2013

No, this does not make sense. Viruses do not spread by reading emails via GMail.
posted by ellF at 3:15 PM on March 19, 2013

I'm not an expert, but keep an eye on your Sent folder as another way to check if a suspicious email "did anything", because of those emails with a random link that, when clicked, send the email to everyone in your address book.
posted by acidic at 3:18 PM on March 19, 2013

Very unlikely. However, just to be safe, and not because of this email in particular but because of the many, many infected websites that you possibly have visited, it's a good idea to run periodic scans of your computer with different anti-malware programs. Don't rely on one anti-virus program -- especially since most of them are so terrible (many of them don't even consider the most common kinds of infections to be viruses; I've actually been told "oh, that's a worm, X doesn't guard against worms" (as if I care what the difference is).

Download Malwarebytes Anti-Malware, install it, run update (twice, just to make sure), and scan your system. It'll find tracking cookies by the gazillion, which don't matter much, but it might find other stuff that's worse. And consider buying it if it helps you; paying these people helps them protect you.
posted by Fnarf at 3:21 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's possible but extremely unlikely.

There are two ways that viruses typically infect computers: by exploiting an undiscovered vulnerability in the software you're using, or by you doing something unwise like running a program that was attached to an email message (which usually generates two or three warning dialogs asking you if you're sure you want to do this).

If you didn't open any attachments, it would have been the first vector. Gmail will filter out any code (malicious or not) in any emails that you load in your browser, so the virus would have to 1) had bypassed this filtering (unlikely) and 2) been based around an undiscovered software vulnerability in the basic functions of your web browser (very rare).

If you're vigilant about keeping your operating system and browser up to date, you shouldn't have to worry that much about viruses spreading this way.
posted by zixyer at 3:41 PM on March 19, 2013

Gmail is pretty vigilant about scanning for viruses. It's a major feature.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:28 PM on March 19, 2013

Best answer: A little over a decade ago, there was a proof-of-concept JPEG virus that made the news. This was only a proof of concept, never made it out in the wild, and is long since added to every virus database. So, this didn't happen to you.

However, a good practice is to enable "Ask before displaying external content" in your Gmail settings. If someone, even someone you trust, happens to get a zero-day virus that starts sending out malicious emails, Gmail will ask you to manually confirm that you want to view images/run scripts/whatever from the message before actually executing them. This should keep you extra safe from whatever the future may bring.
posted by wondercow at 5:02 PM on March 19, 2013

the thing that worries me is that it opened automatically when I read the message, there's a paperclip but no other sign of attachments.

That's normal Gmail behavior for image file attachments.
posted by flabdablet at 6:18 PM on March 19, 2013

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