How hackers, scammers and companies know when you open an email and use it against you

It’s hard to believe that a single pixel could ruin your life. After all, a pixel measures about 0.0104-inches. If you took a mechanical pencil and drew the smallest mark you could, this dot would be much larger than a typical pixel.

With the advent of pixel-tracking, cybercriminals have a whole new weapon at their disposal. That’s why it’s important you take control of your email. Tap or click for the tricks I use to organize my inbox, including a free download that will give your old email a good cleaning.

Why has pixel-tracking become the new trend in cybercrime? Because we’ve become too smart for regular con artists and phishing spam. Plus, we have tools now to stop spam. Tap or click for tactics to reduce your junk email and third-party apps that help.

Since pixel-tracking is still unfamiliar to many users, let’s start with how it works before getting into what to do about it.

How pixel-tracking works

To review, these are common telltale signs of an email scam:

  • Writer requests that you enter personal information.
  • Unknown sender (“From” address).
  • Instructions require immediate attention.
  • Poor spelling or grammar.
  • Requests you click on a link.

Even if you’re super careful, details can go unnoticed. Technically, this microscopic pixel is computer code, embedded within the body of an email. The purpose of this code is to track a large amount of personal information, such as:

  • The number of times you open an email.
  • The operating system you use.
  • The time you opened the email.
  • Your IP address.
  • What type of device you used to open the email.

The shocking fact is this detailed data is sent back to the sender without you having to click on any links or even respond — it’s done automatically. Pixel-tracking allows marketers, advertisers and other companies collect data about you.

RELATED: Sick of the constant tracking? It’s time to change your settings. Tap or click for 8 ways to stop your phone from tracking everything you do.

This kind of tracking is legal, despite the fact that most consumers have never heard of it. As if collecting your info for marketing purposes without your consent isn’t bad enough, pixel-tracking can also serve as a valuable kind of surveillance for cybercriminals, too.

A little-known but widespread threat

Though it’s been used for years, this technique drew very little attention from the media or public; however, pixel-tracking was thrust into the limelight after a 2006 lawsuit revealed that HP employed a commercial email tracking service to trace an email sent to a reporter in an attempt to uncover her source.

As the use of pixel-tracking grows in popularity, consumers, data protection advocates and industry leaders have raised user privacy questions and supported regulations that call for placing limits on technologies like pixel-tracking. Here are a few steps you can take to help you avoid this marketing trap.

How to Block it

The simplest way to prevent pixel-tracking is to block images from displaying in your emails. If the pixel isn’t displayed, the code probably won’t work.

To block images in Gmail, click on the gear icon and select Settings. Scroll down and click on Ask before displaying external images under the Images option. Click Save changes (at the bottom of the page).

If you’re using Outlook or another third-party email client on a desktop or mobile device, you can enable this setting as well, typically located within the app’s settings.

Track the trackers

Why not turn the tables and track those tracking you? Using a browser extension, like PixelBlock, you can block tracking pixels and receive an alert indicating which emails contain the tracking code. A comparable extension, Ugly Mail, is available for Chrome and Firefox.

These browser extensions are easy to use and will reveal just how prevalent pixel-tracking is.

Other steps you can take

This advice is universal: Do not click any links within an email from a sender you don’t know, because the link may be hiding embedded pixel-tracking code. Unfamiliar links may also lead to malware, phishing schemes and any number of other malevolent things.

Never enter your email address in promotional emails, including those from well-known sites like Facebook or Amazon. Chances are, the email is tracking your response.

Did you know Twitter used your phone number and email to sell targeted ads? Tap or click to see how the social media site exposed users’ private details.

Although there is no guarantee you’ll eliminate these threats entirely, your best chance for reducing your inbox of these tracking emails is through awareness and taking the above precautions.

What digital lifestyle questions do you have? Call Kim's national radio show and tap or click here to find it on your local radio station. You can listen to or watch The Kim Komando Show on your phone, tablet, television or computer. Or tap or click here for Kim's free podcasts.

Copyright 2020, WestStar Multimedia Entertainment. All rights reserved.

Learn about all the latest technology on The Kim Komando Show, the nation's largest weekend radio talk show. Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today's digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com.