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Can something happen to me (or my computer) if I respond to a suspicious plain text email?

I received an email from an unknown address, and I am not sure if this is a "real" person.

I would have never read this email if it would have had an attachment, but it is just 3 sentences in plain text. The content is somewhat personal, but when I think about it, it is also general enough that it could be from and for anyone.

I would like to know if this email is from the person that I think it is, but I am not sure if I should respond in terms of security risks.

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If you'd like to post the email and the headers here we can probably make a collective, educated guess for you :) –  NULLZ Apr 29 '13 at 0:04

4 Answers 4

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Your machine will immediately start to disintegrate and you will have 5 seconds to evacuate the building before it explodes!

If you are sure it is plain text the only things that could happen as a result of you replying are:

  1. Someone on the other end knows your email address.

  2. You might now be on some spam lists.

  3. You may now have leaked information if you are a reconnaissance target.

However, if you looked at the email in a web client (like google) and it looks like plain text, don't kid yourself, it could be html, or something else, and it could have something like an embedded image or some other content you didn't realize was there. Clients like Outlook could fool you as well. So be careful. The "text only" email may be more than text only.

My general rule is if I don't know them, or if I don't need to reply (or if I am not curious - in a controlled environment to investigate) why waste my time or risk the issue?!

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You are right, I should have read the email from a virtual machine. However, it really seems to be plain text. I also decided not to respond, but I was also more curious about how to distinguish plain text and hidden html –  bluewoodtree Apr 29 '13 at 0:32
    
Many, many years ago, I made the mistake of replying to an unsollicated message saying I was not interested and did not wish to receive further emails. The sender address was actually a distribution list used by the spammer and my email was relayed to several thousand victims. Oops. –  symcbean Apr 29 '13 at 12:10

The downside of responding if it is indeed a spam message is that it may confirm to a spammer that your address is indeed active and monitored by a person. As a result, you might see an increase of spam.

(I am assuming that this is a personal email)

If this is a business email account, the headers from your email may leak information useful to an attacker such as what mail servers your running, what type of filtering software may be in place etc.

In addition, to confirm if its spam or not, you could attempt to check the headers of the email and see where it originates from and if it's suspicious at all.

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Unsolicited emails often bear fake source email addresses. By responding to a fishy email, you may unwillingly collaborate to a devious scheme meant to saturate the mailbox of some target victim. Possibly, the villain sent ten millions of emails with the address of his victim as alleged sender; if only one person in 1000 decides to respond to the email, the victim will drown under 10000 emails -- which are all hand-typed by old-fashion human beings, thus possibly hard to filter automatically (contrary to computer-generated spams).

Responding to a strange plaintext email normally has no risk for you, but you should refrain from it nonetheless, because you are not alone on the Internet.

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Try to search in google if somebody else received an email that looks like yours, and then maybe you can replay from another email address to see what happends.

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I googled address, name, and email contents but couldn't find anything. I decided not to reply I think, if it was a real person, the person might try again –  bluewoodtree Apr 29 '13 at 1:35

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