CURB THE CLICKS Text-only emails are safest, but they’re as rare as faxes

Can we, or should we, try to put the techno genie back in the bottle?


In our continued quest for stylized attention-grabbing graphics, talking-head video clips and more complex imagery sized just right, is it possible to commit to sending text-only emails to avoid phishing scams or hack artists?

Last fall, Sergey Bratus, research associate professor of computer science at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, posited in an article that “the only safe email is a text-only email.”

Bratus wrote that email and electronic communications are “minefields filled with demands and enticements to click and engage … in an increasingly online experience.”

Simply receiving an email with attachments or graphics isn’t in itself dangerous to the person receiving it, according to James Sheerin, owner of Penn Information Technology LLC in Doylestown. The danger lurks in opening attachments or clicking on links.

Receiving emails and doing nothing with them isn’t dangerous, either, because most email applications have built-in screening scripts to eliminate those issues. And logos, photos and icons, such as those in electronic signatures, generally also are considered to be safe as long as they are not sent as attachments. (If so, don’t open them unless they are from a trusted source or you had requested them.)

While even though Sheerin agreed in theory with Bratus’ premise, Sheerin countered that reality can’t put “the horse back into the barn.”

Email was created by the late Ray Tomlinson, a computer programmer, in 1972, using the @ symbol to identify a message sent from one computer to another. It began as text-only communication.

“Text-only emails are not reality for us as a society,” Sheerin said, adding that communications will continue to evolve.


Today’s marketing environment often includes bombardment by email. Text, photos, images and video and web links encroach on business and personal communications 24/7 in a bid to create awareness and sales of products and services.

This proliferation of email marketing efforts, aimed at selling everything from the latest widget model to delivery services for pet products, further muddles the digital landscape for end users.

Sheerin said the allure of email marketing isn’t likely to change. He said educating end users about email protocols, and including a layered approach to digital communications protection, go a long way to avoid data breaches and computer viral infections and work flow disruptions.

“From a business standpoint, you’ve got to have layers of protection,” Sheerin said.


Craig Stonaha, president of Laughing Rock Technology in Spring Township, said the uses of an email system are critical to its management.

“How much do you want to limit the user?” he asked.

User functionality and data protection are important considerations when dictating how email should be handled and managed, according to Stonaha.

Consider the source – and the voice – when deciding when to click on a link.

“Check the tone of the email,” he said. “Spoofing emails that look legitimate but don’t sound quite right should be a red flag. Do not reply to the email.”


Sheerin said email newsletters generally are safe as long as you have requested or signed up from them at the source.

It’s when you start clicking on links that you open yourself to possible problems, Sheerin said.

Hovering over a link but not clicking and opening should provide enough information to alert the end user if it’s a scam or phishing scheme.

“If you get a message that seems or looks funny, assume it is,” Sheerin said.

Sheerin said contacting the sender by phone or sending a fresh email are the safest ways to find out if the original email is legitimate.


Stonaha said videos sent along with email should automatically raise the same concerns as any other graphic element because they carry the same types of risk for malware or virus infection.

And as video clip promotions continue to increase, clicking or opening them should prompt the same level of caution by end users.

“You have to assume people will make mistakes,” Sheerin said.


In the end, users have the ability to control their digital environment by the way they send information and emails, and by what they opt to open, consume and use.

“Even a small business with cloud services can do a great job” at screening email communication, Stonaha said.

Sheerin and Stonaha agree that spam filters and high-quality firewall software are the first line of digital defense.

“Add good antivirus software,” Sheerin said.

“It’s a very easy environment to control. It doesn’t have to be text only, unless you want it to be,” Stonaha said of emails with attachments. •

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