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Virus alert! You can now get infected by opening an e-mail

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Trojans known as "drive-by emails" can invade computers without having to open an attachment, download a file or click on a link.

There was once a time when having enough common sense to not download files from suspicious sources was enough to avoid getting infected by a computer virus.

That all changed when a newer generation of malware known as "drive by downloads" were unleashed, capable of sneaking into hard drives whenever users visited a malicious site and essentially making anti-virus software something of a day-to-day requirement. Now a recently discovered class of viruses poses a similar threat to perhaps the last bastion of secure cyberspace.

They're called "drive-by emails," and like "drive-by downloads" they infect machines without having to open an attachment, download a file or click on a link. Simply opening an e-mail to read it is enough of a gateway for Trojans and other nasties to invade. The malware is even stealth enough to avoid virus scanners so users won't receive any warning and the only indication that something out of the ordinary is happening is a message that appears as "Loading…Please wait…"

The malware was detected by Eleven security, a German-based firm that specilaizes in e-mail security, and consists of HTML e-mails containing a JavaScript that automatically downloads malware the moment it's opened. Since the virus works through HTML protocol, users can ensure their online safety by turning that feature off and switching to text-only. However, such preventive measures are complicated by the fact that many messages nowadays are composed using HTML.

The firm has provided a screenshot of what the current wave of virus-carrying spam messages looks like, with the subject heading "Banking security update“ and a sender address with the domain fdic.com, a US-based insurance company.

For now, make sure that your e-mail account is comprehensively protected against spam and malware and that all spam and malware filters are updated. And obviously, hold off on opening any e-mails in which you don't know the sender.

Whereas we've all been advised to be cautious, rule of thumb nowadays is to use extreme caution.

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure