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Think that email is private? Think again -- then think some more

10/25: MoneyWatch
Obamacare premiums will soar next year, and other MoneyWatch headlines 01:06

Email hacks have apparently become the new normal.

Just over the last several months, hackers have leaked emails belonging to several highly influential people -- including former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta. The hacked emails, some containing embarrassing tidbits, have been a major theme in the presidential campaign.

This problem now extends far and wide, hitting not only those with influence and power, but plenty of ordinary Americans, too.

Last month, for instance, Yahoo (YHOO) confirmed that information associated with at least 500 million user accounts had been stolen from the company’s network in 2014 by what it suspects was a “state-sponsored actor.” The pilfered information may have included names, email addresses and answers to some security questions.

How cybersecurity is rapidly changing 04:06

Such high-profile breaches serve as a reminder to take basic precautions when it comes to using email, whether it’s for work or personally. As we’ve been warned many times, don’t click on links or open attachments in unsolicited emails unless you’ve verified the sender’s identity.

So-called phishing emails -- like the one that reportedly allowed hackers to access Podesta’s personal account -- often contain links or attachments that can install malware on computers, allowing cybercrooks to get their hands on sensitive personal information, send spam and commit fraud.

The recent spate of public-figure hacks also serves as a reminder to think twice about what you write in your emails, said Davia Temin, an executive coach and crisis manager who has worked with victims of hacks.

Many business and government leaders, she said, have long known that they shouldn’t expect privacy with regard to email, which can be subpoenaed in lawsuits or government investigations or land in the wrong hands through forwarding.

“Folks who are in high levels of leadership within corporations or other organizations pretty much know intellectually that they should never put in an email something they wouldn’t want” covered by the media, said Temin. She noted, though, that many still find it difficult to censor themselves.

The Powell hack, which like other recent high-profile breaches may have been conducted by parties with ties to the Russian government, revealed that Powell considered Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump a “national disgrace,” Hillary Clinton “greedy” and former Vice President Dick Cheney an “idiot.”

“People, no matter who they are, are human, and their need for self-expression, or to get things done efficiently, is great. They often get caught up in the moment and do things they shouldn’t do,” said Temin.

At least 500 million Yahoo accounts hacked 01:42

Like it or not, email messages, particularly work-related, should be innocuous, added Temin. They obviously shouldn’t contain corporate secrets, but snarky remarks about others, lewd comments, angry rants or complaints about the boss are a bad idea also.

More than a few workers, she noted, have been shown the door for writing a boss-bashing email that circulated widely, before somehow landing in said boss’s inbox. It’s also best to assume, noted Temin, that your managers have the ability to snoop on your emails, even if they aren’t actually doing so.

“There are all kinds of monitoring devices that companies have on email,” said Temin.

You don’t have to be stilted or old fashioned, but the tone of your emails should be respectful and a bit formal, she explained. Don’t hit send, she added, unless you’ve taken the time to re-read what you’ve written and are fairly confident that you’ve chosen your words carefully.

“Pretty much all of us have to re-read our emails at least once after we’ve written them and think about how they would appear to people who don’t know us and don’t know what we are talking about,” said Temin.

Sound like a royal pain? Temin doesn’t disagree, but she points to the well-publicized woes of former Goldman Sachs (GS) trader Fabrice Tourre as a cautionary tale for aspiring masters of the universe who are inclined to dismiss her suggestions.

In a civil case brought by securities regulators, Tourre -- a symbol of the financial crisis who came to be known for his nickname, “Fabulous Fab” -- was found liable in 2013 for defrauding investors in a soured mortgage deal. During the trail, Securities and Exchange Commission lawyers produced emails that he supposedly wrote to his girlfriend describing himself as something of a financial titan.

“The whole building is about to collapse anytime now,” Tourre wrote in 2007, according to the SEC. “Only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab ... standing in the middle of all these complex, highly leveraged, exotic trades he created without necessarily understanding all the implications of those monstruosities!!!”

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