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Using Email Safely

Email has become part of the very fabric of our lives. It lets us communicate quickly and easily with friends and family across town or across the globe. But don't let email's convenience make you forget about its potential dangers.

Following a few simple guidelines when using email can help protect you and your computer from identity thieves and unscrupulous businesses.

Treat email like a postcard

Email is not a private method of communication. Anyone with a certain level of technological know-how can read what you send. While it may seem unlikely that anyone would bother trying to read your emails in transit, it's wise to err on the side of caution.

Avoid writing anything in an email that you wouldn't be willing to write on a postcard and drop in a mailbox. That means no personal financial information like account numbers, Social Security numbers, or passwords.

Avoiding email viruses

Hardly a week goes by without a major news story about a virus circulating on the Internet by email. These viruses typically arrive in the form of an attachment with some enticing invitation to open it.

If you open it, the virus can do almost anything–from sending out copies of itself to everyone in your address book to crashing your computer completely. Your best bet is to delete the email and the attachment immediately without opening them, especially if you don't know the sender.

Viruses are tricky though, and the emails they're attached to can seem to be from someone you know and trust, someone who would never knowingly send you a computer virus. So, it pays to be suspicious of attachments in general.

Before you open an unexpected attachment from a friend or family member, you may want to send them an email or give them a call to make sure they sent it.

Dealing with spam

Unsolicited email–commonly called spam–is a growing problem on the Internet, both for recipients and for companies trying to use email to communicate with customers. Low mortgage rate offers, porn site solicitations, phishing scams and ads for merchandise are all forms of spam.

Use a spam filter. A good first line of defense against spam is spam-blocking software. Many email programs like Outlook and Eudora have built-in spam protection tools. Likewise, your Internet service provider may include a spam-blocking system bundled with their service. If these options aren't available to you, look into purchasing and installing spam-blocking software for yourself. These systems do a reasonable job of reducing spam, but they aren't 100% effective.

Delete without opening. When you reply or even open a spam message you may be confirming to the spammer that your email address is active. That's likely to mean more spam will be coming your way as the "good" address gets passed around among spammers.

Unsubscribe with caution. If spam comes from a company or individual you don't know, following the instructions to "unsubscribe" or be removed from the mailing list isn't likely to stop the spam. Your request will probably just confirm to the spammer that the address is active, and your address is more likely to be added to other lists rather than removed from any.

However, if what you think of as spam is coming from a company you have a relationship with, consider the possibility that they think you want to receive what they're sending. They might not realize they're annoying you with these emails because you may have forgotten you signed up for a newsletter or special offers by email. Legitimate businesses that want you as a customer will generally provide you with an email address to contact them to have your name removed from email lists.

Report spammers. Internet service providers often make ongoing efforts to combat spam on their systems. By reporting spam when you receive it, you can sometimes help service providers thwart spammers in the future. Contact your provider to find out if they have procedures in place for you to report spam.

 

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