Tech@Work: E-mail Virus Warnings

How to detect hoaxes and deal with the real Melissas

June 1, 1999

Intending to be helpful, millions of Web users ritually forward virus warnings they receive to everyone on their E-mail distribution lists.

What many senders don’t realize is that a lot of those warnings--"Bud Screen Saver” and “Good Times” are two I’ve received--are nothing more than hoaxes.

Why are hoaxes circulating? Just ask the teenagers who giggle with delight as their warnings cross the globe in a day.

Although a harmless prank, hoax warnings waste Web users’ time and numb users to the real thing.

True viruses--like the recent Melissa--pass from file to file via E-mail, attempting to erase or rewrite information, and range in maliciousness from the equivalent of the common flu to that of the Ebola virus.

Only one out of every 50 warnings I get is legitimate. And of all the warnings I’ve received, only once have I encountered the file I was warned about.

The next time you receive a warning, visit the U.S. Department of Energy’s Web site to determine whether the warning is a hoax before forwarding it to your entire address book.

To further protect yourself, follow four steps:

  1. Be wary of executing (clicking your mouse) attachments you receive in E-mail. Reading the E-mail message itself won’t cause harm. But starting a program (files that end with .exe or .com) or opening a Microsoft Word document or Excel spreadsheet are dangerous activities. If you receive such an attachment and don’t recognize the sender, delete the message. Unfortunately, many people you know will send infected Word and Excel files without realizing they’re passing along a virus.
  2. Buy a virus protection program. Then when someone sends you a Word document or other attachment, you can check the file for known viruses before you open it. If the file is infected, the antivirus program will take care of it by deleting it, refusing to download it, or stripping the virus from the file. You can manually start those programs or keep them running constantly, though that may slow your system.
  3. Regularly visit the antivirus software manufacturer’s Web site to obtain program updates. Since viruses are constantly being developed, the best software in the world won’t protect you if it’s out-of-date. The major software vendors in this category offer their updates at no charge. I update my software once or twice a month.
  4. While you’re on the Web, check recently posted virus warnings. Good sites to learn more about real viruses and antivirus software are McAfee’s Virus Information Center (http://vil.mcafee.com/villib/alpha.asp) and the Symantec AntiVirus Research Center (www.symantec.com/avcenter). Recently someone I knew sent an E-mail with a program called Happy99.exe attached. I learned at those sites that it’s malicious, so I deleted the E-mail and saved myself considerable trouble.

The best protection of all is to back up your important data files regularly. There’s no better peace of mind when theft, fire, or a virus threatens your data.

In addition to instructing GRI programs, Stephen Canale has spoken at hundreds of seminars in 45 states, covering subjects relating to real estate sales and technology. For more information on his products, newsletter, and seminars, visit www.canale.com.

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