Computers and technology have provided some wonderful improvements to many areas of our lives. But, as we become comfortable with them, we sometimes “lose” common sense. Other times, we simply don’t think about the consequences of our actions.
E-mail makes it easy to communicate. Before e-mail, we could make a phone call. But, if it were the middle of the night, we might need to wait until morning. Or, if the person didn’t answer, we had to leave a message (if they had an answering machine) or call back later. Now, we can just prepare an e-mail and hit “send.”
Some time after e-mail was developed, e-mail programs began to add the possibility of sending an automatic reply. That is convenient if you are out of the office for a couple of days. Just set up an automatic response that says, “I will be out of the office until Monday.” Then the person sending the e-mail won’t be upset if we don’t reply quickly enough. Perhaps we see someone else do that and we think, “I should do that, too.” In this way, we can enhance our responsiveness. However, we may not think about the implications if we do.
Maybe you never use these automatic responses. Read on, the ideas expressed here are still relevant if you use e-mail or any other technology.
I sometimes get responses from people that say: “I will be out of the country for three weeks, until [date of return]. Please forward any urgent matters to: firstname.lastname@example.org.”
But, let me ask a question?
Would you put a sign on your front door that says: “I am out of the country for three weeks. I will be gone until ….”? Sounds like an open invitation to thieves, if you ask me.
“But,” you might reply, “I’m not putting a sign on my front door, I’m sending an e-mail from my OFFICE e-mail.” In today’s day and age, do you think it would be too difficult for a crook to find out where you live? More than likely, you work in or near the community where you live. There is likely a pretty easy way to track down your address.
But you might say, “How is a thief going to get my e-mail?” One of my first posts talked about how e-mail is NOT a secure method of communicating. But, consider the following scenarios.
1) Someone sends you an e-mail. They get your response back. The information they have sent to you is something that they were also intending to send to someone else. They get your response back quickly, saying you are on vacation. Instead of composing a brand new message to another party with the same information, they just forward the e-mail to that other party. The message they forward includes your response, that you will be out of the country for three weeks, and provides your date of return to your house. Now, someone else has your vacation schedule.
What if the person who forwarded the information sent it to a group of people, because the information was something they wanted lots of people to see? Maybe it was a joke, or maybe a news story, or something interesting on the Internet. They sent it to you first, then sent it to everyone else. But, after sending it to you, instead of typing it all again, or copying and pasting to a new e-mail, they simply hit “forward,” because the information they sent you has just come back to them in your vacation response. Much easier to forward that message to everyone instead of preparing a brand new e-mail. Now, everyone they send it to knows how long your house will be vacant.
2) You’ve undoubtedly heard news stories of celebrity e-mails getting hacked. Do you think it can’t happen to you? It certainly could happen. You may be safer if you are not as “interesting” a person as a celebrity. But there are all sorts of reasons someone might want to hack your e-mail. Some of them are:
* To get information they can use to gain access to more information in the future
* As the first step in hacking your other accounts (bank account, credit cards, etc.)
* To gain access to other resources you can connect to (servers at your workplace, your insurance company, your medical providers)
* To get access to someone else, someone you know, using your e-mail. Your friend will likely open that e-mail and the hacker can take advantage of that trust to break into their account (not so far-fetched as you might think)
* Your e-mail may be just one of hundreds or more accounts they are hacking. They will then use those hacked accounts to send out spam or phishing e-mails.
* Once they hack your account, they may “look around” for anything interesting before using it. If they see you’re going to be out of the country for awhile, this might be a good time to break into your house. Better yet, they probably know other people. They may not personally want to break into your house, but they might sell that information to someone who does break into houses. Or they may just pass it along as a favor to the thief, who later may provide a favor in return. They may even have an ongoing arrangement with someone who breaks into houses: they provide useful information to the thief and the thief gives them any information or technology they get that could help the hacker to hack the theft victims or their friends.
3) Have you ever received any spam? Of course you have. Do you trust these spammers? Probably not. But you are sending them your autoreply that you are out of the country. Every time they send you a spam message, you are sending them back a message that you are away from home for awhile. Maybe that’s not such a good idea.
What could you do instead?
* Instead of setting up a response that says you will be out of the country, you could set up an automatic “forward” that forwards your e-mails to an assistant or coworker.
* If you still have access to e-mail while you are away, you could quickly scan through the e-mails and only respond to those needing a quick response. That response could be to forward to someone else to take care of it, or you could have a prewritten response that you can paste in as a reply to them. They could still forward that e-mail to someone else, but at least you have more control over who gets your response.
* Instead of saying you are out of the country (or on vacation), word your automatic response in such a way that doesn’t reveal any information that would suggest you are out of town. One example of what you could say is: “For matters requiring immediate attention, please e-mail email@example.com” or “call xxx at 555-1111 x. 111.” You don’t need to give a reason in your e-mail.
* You could give someone else access to your e-mail to review your e-mails and to respond to any that need immediate attention. If the e-mail is a work account, check with your employer first, as they may have rules in place that prohibit giving out your password. If so, they probably can suggest another way to handle your situation.
* Inform those that really need to know you will be unavailable before you go. (Consider using another method than e-mail to do this.) Let your e-mail sit in your inbox until you return. Anyone who hasn’t been informed in advance will just have to wait. If needed, apologize when you return if you forgot to notify someone you should have.
* These ideas may not be appropriate for your particular situation. Practice creative thinking and come up with a different solution that works for your situation. (“A deranged owl has been stealing my e-mails. We think it is delivering them to Hogwarts. We are in the process of putting traps in place to try to catch it so we can send it to a zoo. In the meantime, if you have a matter that needs immediate attention and you don’t hear back from me in a timely manner, please call my owl-whisperer [or coworker, or assistant] at: 555.1111 x.111.”)
Whether or not you use automatic message replies for your e-mail, you should remember the following guidelines.
ALWAYS think before sending an e-mail. Realize that e-mail is not a safe method of sending sensitive information. Even if nobody intercepts it, there are still quite a number of other ways that e-mail information could fall into the wrong hands.
Whenever you are using ANY technology, think about what information you are giving out. If it is sensitive, consider whether it could fall into the wrong hands or be used in a way that you dislike.
Don’t end up being the person that says: “I sent an invitation to the guy that robbed me!”