To delete, or not to delete: that is a tricky question

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, April 18, 2007

Concerning the flood of forwarded and bogus e-mails many of us receive daily, it seems I’m not the only one who has learned the value of the “delete” key.

“I’m glad to find out you DELETE many of those unending forwards from well-meaning friends,” wrote Ontario coffee companion Thelma Rhynas, responding to last week’s column. “A former neighbour sends me as many as 20 a day that I can’t take time to read! Recently, I had over 600 such unread or unanswered e-mails. I got uncaring one night and deleted 400 of them. So many of those forwards, especially the chains, are hoaxes, anyway. Such a waste of time!”

Of course, the question of what e-mail to delete is a bit tricky.

I have my own personal advisor on junk-mail deletion. He’s a mainframe computing strategy specialist with CA (formerly Computer Associates). He also happens to be my older son.

I asked Reg how he decides what to delete from the large volume of e-mail he receives. Of course, he uses his company’s antivirus and antispam software. Nuisance stuff still gets through even the best filters, however. Here’s what he said:

FIRST, I USE the AutoPreview feature of Microsoft’s Outlook for my e-mail. It’s located under the View menu. (Other manufacturers’ e-mail programs have similar features.) AutoPreview allows me to safely see three text-only lines at the very beginning of an e-mail without leaving me vulnerable to the nasty stuff that could come up if I went directly to the Reading Pane or Open features.

Having done that, here’s what I delete and why:

  • E-mail with nonsense in the three lines of AutoPreview – clearly spam.
  • E-mail with an attachment and no content in the AutoPreview, unless I was expecting it. If unsure, I can first phone the person who sent it, just to be safe. The attachment may expose me to Trojan horses or other dangers.
  • E-mail from unknown addresses with subject lines that appear random or irrelevant to me, I delete without even opening – again, clearly spam.
  • E-mail from me (unless I know I sent it) I delete without opening – clearly spam with a fake return address.
  • E-mail from any bank or financial institution – they don’t send these, so this is clearly a trick.
  • E-mail asking me to update my account information. If I’m unsure, I can go to the website of the company in question directly with my browser, but never by clicking on any links in the e-mail – they’re likely attempts at identity theft.

In addition, there are some e-mails that I can’t be sure of, so I do open them. If they still don’t make sense unless I click to show pictures, connect to links, etc., then I generally delete them unless I feel certain that I can trust the source.

Once I’ve looked at an e-mail and everything seems to be otherwise in order, if it instructs me to take any action, from forwarding it to others, to sending money or my bank account number to Nigeria, I generally delete it, or at the very least, I don’t act on the instruction.

E-mail to be particularly careful about is the type that has been forwarded from someone you trust after they received it from someone else. It may have a funny or inspiring story. Fine. Just don’t feel obliged to share it, unless you really want to – and if you do, you should trim any junk off the bottom, such as an instruction to forward for rewards or be punished if you don’t. Better yet, copy and paste the content (less the intimidations) into a new e-mail before sending.

Potentially the most dangerous e-mails, however, are misinformation letters. These are worse than gossip. Well-meaning friends will share them with you, not because the e-mail tells them to – it usually doesn’t –, but because they want to make others aware of a warning, human tragedy, or amazing story – items which prove to have no basis in fact. This kind can be verified at or other hoax-detection sites.

—Reg Harbeck, Calgary

THANKS FOR your help, Reg. With a coffee-cup toast to Shakespeare, I’ll close by quoting from a Stanford University website:

“To delete, or not to delete: that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous spam, or to take arms against a sea of junk mail, and by opposing end it? Stanford has decided on the latter option.”

And so have I.

© 2007 Warren Harbeck

Return to Coffee With Warren home page