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View Source is a relatively safe way to view suspicious emails, even though it is good to remain wary.

Instead of opening a message like normal in Hotmail to read it, when you're not certain about the source, does right-clicking on the message and clicking View Source open you up to viruses and malware? You could read the message through that method, right?

In this excerpt from Answercast #43, I look at using View Source as a method of checking out suspicious emails. It's "probably" safe.

View Source in emails

Probably. And that's really the best I can offer for you there. In general, it is safe.

  • Usually, opening up a View Source on an email message doesn't actually cause anything to happen other than the source of the message to be displayed.

There is nothing in the process of viewing the source that would, for example, cause notification to go back to the sender that you retrieved an image or cause something to be executed on your machine.

So, in that sense, absolutely. View Source is safe and in fact, it's a technique that I often use to do exactly what you've just described.

Depends on the email service

Now, on the other hand, the reason I'm waffling is that it is possible that in the process of retrieving the mail in order to be viewed, the email system could do something with it.

The example that I have is if an email message contains a remote image (which is one of the ways that spammers use to determine whether an email has been opened by a real person), it is possible (it's not required, certainly View Source doesn't need this), but it is possible that the email service could retrieve the image.

  • So it could be sending a signal back to the spammer that says, "Hey, this email was opened. The email address it was sent to is real. Let's go send this person some more spam."

In practice, I honestly don't think that happens; but I can't speak for all email services and I can't speak for them not changing their behavior intentionally or otherwise.

So, be very careful when you step around emails that you are uncertain of.

  • By and large, View Source should be completely safe;

  • But be aware that there's the possibility, however small, that it's not.

Article C5689 - August 13, 2012 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

August 14, 2012 1:08 PM

Use Thunderbird. It block unsafe emails from doing things. In fact, it suspects Leo emails as a scam and puts up an extra warning when I click on the links.

While not foolproof, it gives a measure of security when I accidentally open an unsafe email.

August 14, 2012 1:16 PM

What I've been doing for ages is to right-click on *any* links in my e-mail and then click Properties. You'll usually find it's a re-direct to somewhere you don't want to go.

August 15, 2012 3:20 AM

Hi Leo
While it has been a long time since i succumbed to the temptation of opening a suspicious e-mail, I nevertheless have decided that should I ever do so, I will open it in Sandboxie before viewing where it might be coming from. Sandboxie would then be secure deleted with Ccleaner.
Could you please tell me if this would be safe ???

Safeer, certainly, but not 100%. There are still things that a sandbox or even a VM can't protect you from.
Lynn Houston
August 24, 2012 3:16 PM

I have images and other external content blocked in win mail so it doens't automatically download. Does that prevent the remote image for notifying the spammer if I don't let win mail download the image?

Yep. That's the idea.

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