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I have received an email from a not entirely trustworthy source, it might be legit but I'm not really sure. It contains, among other things, information on a .docx Microsoft Word file and a .xlsx Microsoft Excel file.

I have already scanned the files on http://virustotal.com and no viruses have been found, but I also read that macros can exist in the xml or zipped portion of the files themselves.

I am seeking ideas about pinpointing potential malicious intent, such as finding macros.

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    If your question can be reduced to "Is it common for people to send email attachments that use proprietary formats when plain text or csv can do (despite the transparency of the latter)?", then I'm not sure you'll get an "official" answer but my guess is that such actions are very common, not just with individuals but also governments and organizations. And let's not forget the sending of pdf files, which even if they're untainted, often come with a "requires this software to open it" message. – user151227 Sep 8 '13 at 2:44
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    Sounds like she should ignore this contact and delete the file. – Ramhound Sep 8 '13 at 2:56
  • @vasa1 I assumed anyone working in even SEO would consider it unprofessional to use proprietary stuff unless it was requested. I even used a similar phrase when speaking to her, that I realize most people use docx and xlsx without even realizing alternatives, but pros? I guess I am searching for input from people in this or similar industries, and also maybe a definite way of finding malicious intent in the files. – fightermagethief Sep 8 '13 at 3:05
  • If this is from someone in the health industry, then they may have HIPPA regulations they need to follow. – spuder Sep 8 '13 at 6:03
  • I personally don't consider SEO to be part of the proper IT community - I've just seen so much crap. If you create a resource thats actually useful, it tends to get attention. Just so many red flags here, to me. – Journeyman Geek Sep 8 '13 at 6:41
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Macros cannot be saved in .xlsx files. Excel will refuse, and tell you to save it as an .xlsm file. If you save as .xlsm and then rename as .xlsx Excel will not open the file.

Assuming someone got around this restriction, then Excel will disable any macros found in an .xlsx file.

  • +1 That is the correct answer. Note that also .xlsb and the old .xls format can contain macros. – nixda Nov 6 '13 at 8:35
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I do site IT support for a manufacturing plant, and I can tell you that sending Word and Excel documents to employees of another company is not common place, especially for sharing tips. I get these sorts of emails all the time and the tips are always contained within the email, included in a PDF, or a link to a page on their company web-site.

Within the organization, this is a different matter. Users within the organization often share Word and Excel files through email.

Sending zipped files on the other hand is common place both inside and outside of the organization. It's also 50%/50% on whether it's spam or not. The users I support forward me emails they received to determine if they were spam or not, and zipped files often accompany the spam emails. On the other hand, they frequently contact me for help when they receive ligitimate emails that contain zipped files or need to send one with a zip file. Often organizations have limits on the size of the emails they can send or receive and the users opt for zipping the files when they exceed those limits. But again, when companies send emails to share tips, I have never seen this.


Side Note: This is just my experience, but anytime a company (any company, not just an IT company) has to contact you first, they aren't very good at what they do and you should avoid them. When a company is good at what they do, the customers will come to them.

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First rule would be to NEVER open unsolicited email attachments. It is simply extremely bad security practice. If you send me something suspicious like that and I don't know you, I'll tend to automatically blacklist you.

As far as formats, I normally see most companies use Adobe PDF for whitepapers. I can't remember the last time I saw whitepapers in raw Office format. It used to be that due to the macro issue, you only opened such files from trusted sources and even then disabled macros first. Another reasons you don't see that today is the metadata in the files can lead to embarrassing disclosures. (Which PDF isn't immune to! Something to keep in mind.)

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If this is not a trustworthy source, or if you are even a bit suspicious, the best action is to simply delete the email. Specially if this is information you have not requested, or is not part of a previous information, or it isn't vital information for you.

If you can contact the sender to confirm the authenticity of the file, do so. If possible, ask then to re-send the information as a text-file (even PDFs can have malware).

If you really need access to the information, and can't get it in a new format, here's what I'd do:

  • Check for malware on http://virustotal.com, it will check the files against 40 diferent antiviruses. You have already taken this step, that's great.
  • Either (1) Boot from a Linux live CD (ie, Ubuntu), open the file on LibreOffice, remove the macros and export to a new file (possibly in a different, safer format)
  • or (2) open the file on Google Docs and export to a new file (possibly in a different, safer format)
  • I agree with you and was hesitant to post here for these reasons. Do you know of a more proper arena for this type of problem? I run into issues similar to this occasionally and, because no one is really concerned with the prevention of fraud, they tend to go unnoticed or unanswered which I feel makes it such a lucrative 'business'. Also, at least part of my question would have a definite, technical answer: How do you ascertain the safety of such files? – fightermagethief Sep 8 '13 at 12:08
  • Your question can be divided in (at least!) three: (1) effectiveness of SEO, (2) If it is common for companies to send information on proprietary file formats, and (3) how to detect malware on attached files on email. MAYBE you could ask the first two on quora.com, only the last question belongs here, and even then it can be phrased as "How do I ensure attached files received via email are malware-free", or something almost as short. In fact, I'm suggesting a rewrite, if you like it please accept. – That Brazilian Guy Sep 8 '13 at 15:14

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