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Forwarding Email Safely

Steve asks:

I liked your comment about Bcc (see the tip Bcc Explained [1]). I forward by using Bcc, removing all email addresses that people have sent me. I have asked my friends to remove their friends’ email addresses before they forward it on, some do and some don’t. How do I explain the dangers caused by leaving the addresses?

Steve, I attempted to find an average number of likely recipients to forwarded emails, to help make a point about the risk. I had no luck. Too many variables, I suppose. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say someone sends an interesting email to ten people and each of the recipients sends it to ten others and they, in turn, send it to ten others and so on, in essence, building an email pyramid. Because of the speed in which email travels, this message could be seen by hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people in a matter of days. Of course, ten recipients multiplied by ten recipients, etc. isn’t a likely scenario, but my limited math skills make multiples of ten easier to comprehend.

If none of the people who forwarded the email used Bcc, or if they didn’t clear the addresses of the recipients from the forwards they received, each recipient on the list risks exposure. Spammers and viruses scan for email addresses, in an attempt to spread their garbage. If the email of one recipient on the list is compromised, all the names on these forwards are also put at risk. And computer safety is not the only concern. An email address can be used to learn personal information about an individual and this can lead to a number of other potential problems, demonstrated in an earlier WorldStart tip [2].

While writing this, I opened a random forwarded email that had been sent to WorldStart which contained 36 email addresses, and had been forwarded six times in three days. Only one of the senders used Bcc, so the addresses of all the other recipients to which this message had been forwarded were displayed. Please keep in mind that the last person to send it, forwarded it to WorldStart, indicating that selecting recipients, at least for them, was not a priority. Among the first things I do when checking email at work is to delete forwards, so there’s no logical reason for it to have been sent to us in the first place.

If you do a Google search of your name and city, it’s likely that your phone number and address will appear somewhere near the top of the list. At least it will, if you’re listed in a phone book. Of course, thanks to increasing cell phone usage, phone books are rapidly joining the numerous dinosaurs created by the digital age. However, while it’s not impossible to link an email address to a name, they’re not yet quite as readily available. So why allow yours and your friends’ email addresses to be needlessly exposed?

Thanks for the comment and the question, Steve.

For more on common email mistakes, take a look at this tip [3]. For more on general Internet Security, please take a look at the WorldStart Internet Security Survival Guide [4].