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ARCHIVED  October 22, 1999

Practice safe computing to avoid viruses

Melissa, Michelangelo, Chernobyl, Worm, I Am Stoned. With names ranging from the innocuous to the foreboding to the downright goofy, these computer viruses share the power to strike fear in the hearts and keyboards of computer users everywhere.

Fast-spreading and as invisible as germs, computer viruses are an increasingly insidious problem for those who rely on computers to power their businesses and lifestyles. According to Cupertino, Calif.-based Symantec Corp., which produces antivirus software, American business loses up to $550 million yearly to unauthorized access to computers.

And the worst part, observers say, is that like the disease viruses that plague humans, computer viruses mutate constantly.

“As soon as an antivirus program stomps a particular virus, a hacker gets that software and finds out how they stomped it and writes a new virus,´ said Dan Dugal of Fort Collins-based Computer Paramedics.

Computer experts complain that viruses could be stymied if more users took simple precautions to protect themselves. Awareness, it seems, is the obstacle.

Here’s a primer on the problem:

What is a computer virus? In simple terms, it’s an unwanted program that self-replicates and spreads, explained computer author and columnist Peter Kent.

“It can spread from computer to computer through networks, disk drives and the Internet. Sometimes, not always, it does nasty things,” Kent said.

Damage ranges from nuisance to devastation. A virus may present as simply an annoying message, or it may worm its way into the heart of a system, destroying files, corrupting programs, mangling directories, even rendering the system unusable.

Where does a computer virus come from? From computer programmers run amok.

“It’s a challenge for a lot of kids,” Kent said. “It’s a challenge to see if you can break a system, to see if you’re better than the people who built the system you’re trying to break into.”

How do you know you’ve got a computer virus? You may not, at least not at first.

“It’s kind of like diagnosing an illness,” Dugal said. “There’s no one symptom. When weird things start happening that are unexplainable & that’s where we’ll do a virus scan.”

One virus, Happy ’99, once it has infected a system, attaches itself to outgoing e-mail messages. When a user of the infected computer sends an e-mail, the virus replicates itself and attaches to a duplicate message.

The recipient receives two copies of the e-mail, one containing the virus. When it arrives, the recipient unwittingly double clicks on the message, and then they’re infected, Kent said.

Who is most likely to be infected?

The question may be better put, who is not?

Complete isolation offers about the only chance of immunity, Dugal said. Users who download a lot of information from the Internet, exchange disks frequently or use e-mail often are probably most susceptible.

How can you protect your computer system? Get, install and regularly update antivirus software. Computer experts emphasize that over and over.

“The absolute biggest problem is that people are misinformed,” Dugal said. Users may think that they have protection because their system came with an antivirus program installed. But that’s not enough, he said.

Antivirus software is constantly changing to meet the challenges of mutating and new viruses. Thus, a user’s antivirus software is likely only as good as its last update. To update, visit the software company’s Web site.

“Remember to update virus definition files frequently, once a week or so. Maybe even more,” Kent said.

Practicing safe computing will also help prevent viruses. Kent advises users to keep a close eye on files or programs they add to their computers from outside.

“Whenever you place any kind of executable file or program file on your computer from outside, check it first, whether it comes on a floppy disk, or a CD or through the network,” he said.

If your system is networked, limit shared directories. “Rather than sharing the entire hard drive, share the directories you really need to share,” Kent added. “Once you’re finished, turn off sharing.”

Melissa, Michelangelo, Chernobyl, Worm, I Am Stoned. With names ranging from the innocuous to the foreboding to the downright goofy, these computer viruses share the power to strike fear in the hearts and keyboards of computer users everywhere.

Fast-spreading and as invisible as germs, computer viruses are an increasingly insidious problem for those who rely on computers to power their businesses and lifestyles. According to Cupertino, Calif.-based Symantec Corp., which produces antivirus software, American business loses up to $550 million yearly to unauthorized access to computers.

And the worst part, observers say, is that like the disease viruses that plague humans, computer…

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