Embedded images in email could be something to watch for. Of course, there is no way of knowing they're being used unless you know what to look for.
In an effort to figure out your browsing habits and learn what to sell you, many companies are resorting to images only one pixel by one pixel large (about the size of a period) to track you. The next time some online retailer offers you an item you want but never searched for on their site, that's how they did it.
Many amateur internet gurus have been aware of what have been called "cookies" for some time now. These are small pieces of code that advertisers install on your computer, smartphone, or tablet, which sit in a key location and feed your browsing habits to the advertiser. Many anti-malware programs are programmed to look for those cookies and eliminate them as potentially unwanted programs (or PUPs), but they usually leave the decision up to you. Cookies can easily be tiny viruses that generate their own pop-up ads and ruin your internet experience.
Malware cookies are usually sitting on websites you probably shouldn't be visiting, so if you're not sure about the site, don't visit.
Embedded images in email are a new way of doing the same thing, and legitimate advertisers are using them all the time. Usually, the title of the email offers you something you might want. In the case of Amazon, they will offer items similar to what you just ordered by using the name of the item, and a group of items pictured in the message. By the time you open it, you've already activated the embedded tracker. It lets the online retailer know that you opened the email and that you're interested in similar things. Anything you click on in the email will feed them even more information about what you want.
These embedded images in email are how many retailers catch your attention the next time you visit the site. They might even be recording how much time you spend on certain item pages.
Of course, they aren't just looking at your shopping habits on their own site. If you happen to use Google to find information on, for example, a car part, the code used in these embedded email images will let advertisers know you're interested in things related to cars.
According to WSBTV and an investigation by Clark Howard, Yahoo has been known to depend on these embedded images in email as well as cookies. Recently, they allegedly stopped allowing users to access their email if they use ad blocker software (though I just checked with one such plug-in activated, and I had no problem).
@mplsmusette @NineAces I got my tracking info email! Complete with a 1px x 1px embedded image, which was a wee bit weird.
— Gabe Masiulis (@GForce360) July 15, 2015
There are things you can do to prevent these trackers from doing what they were meant for. The first step is one that many sites could have a problem with due to their method of generating profits: Install an ad blocker plug-in that prevents ads from appearing in your browser. This will also make it impossible for embedded images in emails to appear and do their job of tracking your browsing habits.
Another step you can take can only be done from your email inbox. Look through the titles and simply mark all of the obvious advertisements as "read." The tracker image won't activate and the email won't be begging you to open it. Most email providers won't automatically open the email when you use the browser site, but many mobile email apps open them by default if it's the only unread message.
Finally, if you're worried about the vast amounts of information being gathered through embedded images in email, there is one very useful rule: If there is any doubt, don't click on it.
[Image via Myimagine]/Shutterstock]