Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Choose Your E-mail Address Carefully

By Coenraad De Beer

Did you know that it is important to choose the right name for your electronic mailbox? Very few people realise it and therefore expose themselves to things like identity theft, phishing and yes you guessed it, annoying spam.

What do you normally use as a login name or nickname when you register for an online service? Many people use a number or a keyword that is easy to remember and the easiest thing to remember is obviously your own name. However, your own name is the last thing you should use for any kind of login details and the same rule applies when you choose an e-mail address.

Why is it important for a spammer or phishing scammer to know your name? The main reason is authenticity. Let me explain with an example. If you have an account with PayPal and you receive an e-mail asking you to update your details, are you going to take the e-mail seriously if the e-mail starts with "Dear PayPal Customer"? Most people will say no, but what if your name is John Doe and the same e-mail starts with "Dear John Doe"? You can easily argue that anyone can send a PayPal look-alike e-mail starting with "Dear PayPal Customer", but not everyone knows my name, so chances are good that the latter version are probably from PayPal. I won't be too sure of that, especially if your e-mail address is People often use a dot (.), a dash(-) or an underscore (_) as a separating character in their e-mail addresses and even a novice computer programmer will be able to extract the name and surname part from an e-mail address similar to the one given above

An e-mail starting with your name draws your attention immediately, so you tend to read more carefully and in most cases, the whole e-mail. Most people will respond immediately if they hear someone calling their name. The same basic principle applies to e-mails starting with your name, or containing your name in the subject line. This is why it is so popular among e-mail marketers to use your name in the subject line, you immediately want to see what the e-mail is about, because the person addressed you personally, like a friend or familiar person would do. Spammers use the same technique so that recipients open their e-mails and read what's inside. They normally use the first part of your e-mail address as your name in the hope that it contains your real name.

What about or or If everyone calls you John, then jdoe, doej or jd will have little effect on drawing your attention. If someone sends you an e-mail with a subject line reading "john.doe check this out" and another one sends you exactly the same e-mail, but changes the subject line to "jdoe check this out", which one will draw your attention the most? The fist one off course and it will attract even more attention if the spamming software replaced the dot between your name and surname with a space, wouldn't it?

Ok, so lets come back to the example of the PayPal phishing e-mail. People are less suspicious when their real names are mentioned in the e-mail, but you will always be able to spot a scam if you choose an e-mail address that is not related to your name, surname or any of the nicknames your friends and family normally use. In other words, when you see someone using the first part of your e-mail address in the subject line, instead of your real name, you can know for sure that the e-mail is the work of a spammer and if the sender used it in the body of the e-mail, then it is obvious that the sender doesn't have a clue what your real name is. PayPal is supposed to know what your real name is, so if your e-mail address is, then they will never send you an e-mail starting with "Dear jdoe", only spammers will.

What if my current e-mail address contains my name or surname? I know that it is a lot of work and a huge frustration to change from one e-mail address to another, a lot of people have to be informed and a lot of e-mail subscriptions have to be changed. If your current e-mail address contains your name or surname, consider changing it as soon as possible and rather choose a name that does not reveal any personal information. A telephone number written on a little piece of paper reveals nothing about the name or surname of the owner, your e-mail address should have the same effect on strangers.

About the Author
Coenraad is webmaster and founder of Cyber Top Cops, leaders in Internet security, prevention of online fraud and raising awareness about online scams and malicious software.

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