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Hackers and Scammers Use Your Email Against You

A pixel is 0.0104-inches, and if cyber-crooks embed one in an email, they know if you read it, how often, the device you used, your operating system and IP address.

NEW YORK – It’s hard to believe that a single pixel could ruin your life. After all, a pixel measures about 0.0104-inches. If you took a mechanical pencil and drew the smallest mark you could, this dot would be much larger than a typical pixel.

With the advent of pixel-tracking, cybercriminals have a new weapon at their disposal. That’s why it’s important you take control of your email.

Why has pixel-tracking become the new trend in cybercrime? Because we’ve become too smart for regular con artists and phishing spam. Plus, we have tools now to stop spam.

Since pixel-tracking is still unfamiliar to many users, let’s start with how it works before getting into what to do about it.

How pixel-tracking works

These are common telltale signs of an email scam:

  • Writer requests that you enter personal information
  • Unknown sender (“From” address)
  • Instructions require immediate attention
  • Poor spelling or grammar
  • Requests you click on a link

Even if you’re super careful, details can go unnoticed. Technically, this microscopic pixel is computer code, embedded within the body of an email. The purpose of this code is to track a large amount of personal information, such as:

  • The number of times you open an email
  • The operating system you use
  • The time you opened the email
  • Your IP address
  • What device you used to open the email

The shocking fact is this detailed data is sent automatically back to the sender without you having to click on any links or even respond. Pixel-tracking allows marketers, advertisers and others to collect data about you.

This kind of tracking is legal. As if collecting your info for marketing purposes without your consent isn’t bad enough, pixel-tracking can also serve as a valuable kind of surveillance for cybercriminals, too.

A little-known but widespread threat

Though it’s been used for years, this technique drew very little attention from the media or public; however, pixel-tracking was thrust into the limelight after a 2006 lawsuit revealed that HP employed a tracking service to trace an email sent to a reporter in an attempt to uncover her source.

As the use of pixel-tracking grows in popularity, consumers, data protection advocates and industry leaders have raised user privacy questions and supported regulations that call for placing limits on technologies like pixel-tracking. Here are a few steps to avoid this marketing trap.

How to block it

The simplest way to prevent pixel-tracking is to block images from displaying in your emails. If the pixel isn’t displayed, the code probably won’t work.

To block images in Gmail, select Settings. Scroll down and click on Ask before displaying external images under the Images option. Click Save changes (at the bottom of the page).

If you’re using Outlook or another third-party email client on a desktop or mobile device, you can enable this setting as well, typically located within the app’s settings.

Track the trackers

Why not turn the tables and track those tracking you? Using a browser extension, like PixelBlock, you can receive an alert indicating which emails contain the tracking code. A comparable extension, Ugly Mail, is available for Chrome and Firefox.

Copyright 2020, USATODAY.com, USA TODAY, Kim Komando