Yes! But getting a virus from opening an email is very unlikely–so unlikely, in fact, that you’ll have to take active steps to infect your computer with a virus. Don’t do that! I’ll tell you why it’s unlikely and what you have to do (for the purpose of avoiding it) to actually get a virus.
I’m Aaron, a technology, security and privacy zealot. I’ve been working in cybersecurity for over a decade and while I’d like to say I’ve seen it all, there are always new surprises.
In this post, I’ll explain a little bit about how viruses work and how cybercriminals deliver them via email. I’ll also cover some of the things you can do to stay safe.
Table of Contents
- Key Takeaways
- How does a Virus Work?
- Can I Get a Virus From Opening an Email?
- Can Opening an Email Give you a Virus on Your Phone?
- What Happens If You Open an Email with a Virus?
- Viruses are software that needs to run on your computer or network.
- Most email products–whether on your computer or online–actively work to prevent you from getting a virus just by opening an email.
- You typically have to interact with an email’s contents for email to infect your computer with a virus. Don’t do that unless you know who’s sending it to you and why!
- Even if you open an email with a virus, it’s very unlikely to infect your computer unless you interact with it! I can’t emphasize that enough.
- You don’t really need to worry about your iPhone or Android being infected, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use email safely.
How does a Virus Work?
A computer virus is software. That software installs itself onto your computer or another device on your network. It then allows things that you don’t want: either it will change how your computer works, it will prevent you from being able to access your information, or it will let unwelcome guests onto your network.
There are numerous ways for your computer to get a virus–too many to describe here. We’re going to talk about the most common mode of virus delivery: email.
Can I Get a Virus From Opening an Email?
Yes, but it’s rare to get a virus from just opening an email. You typically need to click on or open something in the email.
There are a couple of different ways for you to access your email. One is an email client on your computer, like Outlook. The other is accessing email via an internet browsing window like Gmail or Yahoo Email. Both operate in slightly different ways, which is relevant to whether or not you can get a virus just by opening email.
You may notice that when you open an email on a desktop client, photos sent by non-trusted senders will not automatically appear. On a browser-based session, those photos will appear. That is because a class of viruses is embedded in the picture itself.
On your computer, your computer is responsible for downloading and opening those pictures, which exposes you to the risk of being infected with a computer virus. In a browser, your mail provider’s servers are responsible for downloading and opening those pictures—and do so in a way where their servers are not infected.
In addition to pictures, emails contain attachments. Those attachments may include a computer virus or other malicious code. Emails may also contain links, which send you to a website. Those websites may be compromised and contain malicious content or may be completely malicious in nature.
Can Opening an Email Give you a Virus on Your Phone?
Probably not, but it can give you other malicious software called “malware.”
Think of your phone as a small computer. Because that’s what it is! Even better: if you have a MacBook or a Chromebook, your phone is just a smaller version of that (or they’re bigger versions of your phone, however you want to look at it).
Threat actors have written many malicious programs for phones, delivered through email and the app store. Many of those are designed to steal money or data. It’s legitimate software that has a malicious and fraudulent purpose and goal, hence “malware.”
But what about viruses? According to Avast, there really aren’t that many traditional viruses for phones. The reason for that is how iOS and Android function: they sandbox and isolate apps so that those apps can’t interfere with others or the phone’s operation.
What Happens If You Open an Email with a Virus?
Probably nothing. As I wrote above, you really have to interact with the email in a very purposeful way to get a virus from it. Usually, that interaction is by clicking a link or opening an attachment.
If an email itself contains a virus, that’s typically embedded in a picture which, as stated above, is either being opened safely online or blocked on your computer.
So what happens if you decide to download the picture data and load it on your computer? Unless the virus is a “zero day” or something so new that no antivirus or antimalware provider can defend against it, probably still nothing.
Despite the popularity of iOS, there are still not a lot of viruses for it, with cybercriminals opting for malware that steals money or data. If you’re on Windows, then Windows Defender is built into the Windows operating system. Windows Defender is a great antivirus/antispyware/antimalware program and will likely eradicate the virus before it does some serious damage.
Here are some other related questions about viruses and email, I’ll briefly answer them below.
Can Opening an Email Be Dangerous?
Possibly, but not likely. As I wrote above: there is a class of viruses embedded into pictures. When those are loaded by your computer, they can execute malicious code. If you open an email in a browser, or if you open it in an updated local mail client, you should be ok. That being said you should always engage in safe email use: only open emails from sources you know, make sure their email address is legitimate, and make sure not to click on links or open files from people you don’t know.
Should you open an email from someone you don’t know?
I’d recommend against it, but opening an email from someone you don’t know won’t automatically cause you harm. As long as you don’t load any pictures from them, download any files, or click any links you’ll probably be fine. You can use email preview to tell you whether or not you know the sender and what they’re writing you about.
Can You Get a Virus by Previewing an Email?
No. When you preview an email it gives you the sender information, email subject, and some of the email text. It does not download attachments, open links, or otherwise open content in the email that might be malicious.
Can You Get Hacked Just by Opening an Email?
It’s very unlikely you’ll get hacked just by opening an email. If there’s one thing I want to reiterate here it’s this: software needs to run and run on your computer for you to get hacked. If you open an email, the computer parses and displays the text or the website loads the text. Unless it improperly loads a picture with an embedded virus, then it’s not running software. Some devices, like iPhones, completely prevent running software downloaded via email.
Can You Get a Virus from Opening an Email Attachment on iPhone?
It’s possible! However, as I highlighted above, it’s very unlikely. There aren’t a lot of viruses made for iOS, the operating system that runs on iPhones. While there is malware written for iOS, malware is typically distributed through the app store. However, malicious code can still run from an attachment or image. So please practice safe email use even on an iPhone!
While you can get a virus from opening an email, it’s very difficult for that to happen. You almost have to go out of your way to get a virus from just opening an email. That being said, you can get a virus from attachments or links in an email. Safe email use will go a long way in protecting yourself against getting a virus.
Do you have a story to share about downloading a virus? I find that the more collaboration around mistakes, the more everyone benefits by learning from those. Let me know in the comments below.