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December 6, 1999
The Boy Who Cried "Virus!"
Know the difference between rumors and the real thing

When Melissa, the innocuously named computer virus that shut down corporate e-mail systems, made the headlines in March 1999, virus fever hit the Internet. A flurry of e-mails warned computer users of scary-sounding viruses that promised certain death to hard drives. "If you ever get an e-mail titled 'JOIN THE CREW,' do not open it because it will wipe everything on your hard disk. This is the newest virus not many people know about it. So e-mail it to everyone you know!!!!!!" one message exclaimed. Frightened into believing, most people obeyed the message's command and forwarded it to everybody in their address books.

Many of these virus warnings were a hoax, and many others like them find their way into circulation each week. Other hoax messages warn that Yahoo! distributes computer viruses to its visitors, or that e-mails titled "South Park Newsletter" and attachments titled "trickortreat.exe" unleash deadly viruses that wipe out hard drives or spam people in users' address books. The viruses actually don't exist, but they do cause people to forward messages to everybody they know, clogging up server space and annoying many.

This is not to say virus warnings should be ignored – to the contrary, with new e-mail viruses such as W32.Mypics.Worm and W95.Babylonia scheduled to hit on New Year's Day, you should be especially cautious. However, before you forward these e-mail warnings to friends and co-workers, check the site www.symantec.com/avcenter/hoax.html, a service by the company that makes Norton AntiVirus software. The site lists information about all the virus hoaxes in circulation.

Protecting Yourself from the Real Deal
A computer virus is a piece of software programmed to attach itself to files and replicate itself without your knowledge. Viruses usually enter computers on a floppy disk or e-mail attachment (simply opening an e-mail message won't ignite a virus, but downloading an attachment and opening that file can). As stated in the hoax warnings, real viruses can erase files, slow down your computer or replicate e-mails and send them to everybody in your address book. Here are some ways you can protect yourself against new viruses:

  • Use anti-virus software. Yes, it's annoying to wait for the software to scan a disk or file every time you copy something to your hard drive – but it's worth it.
  • Update the software frequently. The manufacturer of your software should post frequent updates on its Web site to include detection of newly created viruses. If you're using software that's two years old and haven't updated it lately, it won't help you. (ZDNet catalogs most software updates on its Web site. Click here.)
  • Be wary of e-mail attachments from people you don't know. If you receive an .EXE or document file from an unknown party, download it to your hard drive and scan it with your software before you open it.
  • Also watch out when downloading software from the Web. As long as you're downloading the program from a big-name company or reputable site, you shouldn't have to worry. But if you've found somebody's personal site that offers plug-ins or self-written software, be very aware that a virus may come along with it.
  • Don't boot from a floppy disk. If you leave your floppy disk in the A: drive when you shut down, most PCs will detect it and give you an error message. If your computer doesn't do this, be sure to eject the disk when you shut down so the computer doesn't try to boot from the floppy when you start up again.
  • Back up your files regularly. Use a server or ZIP disks to make copies of all important documents.
  • If you contract a virus: Often your anti-virus software will "disinfect" the disk and erase the problem. If this doesn't work, delete the infected files. When a virus spreads and can't be deleted, you may have to reformat the hard drive (which is why it's important to back up frequently). If you get a virus, contact all the people with whom you've exchanged e-mails or shared files recently.

- by Stacey King