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The Dreaded Computer Virus and Why You Should be Concerned

Al Doran

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I am going to start this column off upside down, by giving you the bottom line first, in case you grow tired of the techno gaffelgab before you get to the "message".

If you have a computer, at home or at work, and if you are connected to the Internet, be sure you have a dependable and updated Anti Virus software package installed on your computer. If you do not have anti virus software on your PC, run, do not walk, to your nearest software outlet and buy one of the many good AV packages available, install it, and then update it at least monthly. Now back to the beginning of the article.

Although Year 2000 (or Y2K) is seen as the big problem today, the growing virus threat is probably a bigger threat. Viruses afflict a million computers every year. More than 10,000 viruses have appeared so far, and unscrupulous individuals with some programming expertise generate another six every day. There is increased distribution of these viruses via the Internet. New types of viruses are developing, such as macro viruses, which have the ability to rapidly spread and inflict major damage.

For computer viruses, there are two common ways of entry: diskette and e-mail. Viruses then reproduce by attaching themselves to a host (a program or computer) and take over the host's resources to make copies of themselves. Computer viruses spread from program to program and from computer to computer, much as biological viruses spread between people. Less common, but a growing menace, is the proliferation of java and active-x viruses being downloaded off of the World Wide Web.

The symptoms of a virus infection can range from unpleasant to fatal. An afflicted computer user could see the system slow or crash; files mysteriously expand or become lost or damaged, and the computer unable to execute commands. Once a virus enters the system, its path might be into the hard drive through memory, and then into the bios area of the motherboard. The result could be costly. The loss of one important business file could cost more to replace than the cheap "insurance" available to prevent the problem.

Insurance is an investment in protection. It is bought with the understanding that in the future it may be needed, but for now, it's in the background. At home and at work we depend on insurance for our cars, homes, travel, etc. We hope we will never need it, but its there if we do. But unlike some of these insurance items, we WILL need Anti Virus "insurance", guaranteed, if we are using the internet on a regular basis and receiving files from others on the net.

Anti-virus software is a form of insurance. Using a computer connected to the Internet without anti-virus software is like driving in Toronto without automobile insurance. In the short term one saves money, but when an accident happens the damage will be painful and the subsequent recovery period expensive.

Anti Virus Software

Anti Virus software uses a mathematical detection technique to find viruses, alert the user to their presence, and (in many cases) removes them from the infected host. When used conscientiously,

Anti-virus software can automatically check and fix all potentially infected files and disks before a virus can spread.

Depending on the e-mail software package you are using, the Anti Virus software will warn you when an infected incoming virus is detected. I am using Eudora Light and when my Anti Virus software detects an infected incoming attachment my screen "goes red" with a warning about the virus, naming the type of virus, and offering me the option of deleting the attachment, repairing it, or accepting it as is. Normally I use the Repair option, enabling me to then see whom the note came from so I can warn them. I can still delete this attachment without opening it, or I can assume my Anti Virus software did its job and did repair it. This happens, unfortunately, a few times a month. Its amazing how surprised people are when I tell them they have sent me an infected file. After some discussion its not so surprising at all when it comes out that they have no Anti Virus software on their computer or they have not updated it in many months. If you have Anti Virus software, you should be updating it at least monthly (I update mine weekly). Most of the good Anti Virus software companies allow live updates for their clients right from their web site and it only takes a few minutes.

What are the Options?

Eighty per cent of the anti-virus software market is ruled by the three best-known companies Symantec (the maker of Norton products), Network Associates (McAfee), and Dr Solomon. The smaller players, such as Quarterdeck (Virusweep) and Touchstone (PC-cillin), make up for most of the remaining 20%.

Many new computer systems, such as the Aptiva E-series or Hewlett Packard Pavilion series, now come preloaded with anti-virus software. Both preloaded packages offer software with basic

Virus-scanning capabilities, as well as technical support. If these software options are chosen as your Anti Virus protection, make sure you do a live update right after purchasing the equipment, and refresh those updates at least monthly. If your provider does not provide live updates, move to one of the software vendors above, and quick, your Anti Virus will be out of date in now time.


The current versions of the big names, as noted, are Norton Antivirus 5.0 ($69.99), Dr. Solomon's Antivirus 7.0 ($49.99), and McAfee's ViruScan ($64.99). Each provides easy-to-use, ample coverage for home PC users. All three products provide comparable features: virus scanning and detection; 24-hour virus emergency support, and monthly online updates on new viruses.

Their web sites are

You can also buy more advanced, "deluxe" protection, which isn't too much more expensive. Dr. Solomon's AntiVirus Deluxe ($94.95), for example, includes all the regular features plus three extra items: a multimedia virus tutorial that explains how viruses work and how to stay protected; advanced Internet protection and free daily virus updates (instead of the regular monthly).

Symantec offers a comparable deluxe option with their SystemWorks Version 2.0, which for under $100 includes not only their highly rated AntiVirus software, but also Norton Utilities, CleanSweep, and Crash Guard. They also have a "Professional Version" of their SystemWorks 2.0, which sells for $169.99 (with rebates for current clients), which has Y2K software, web-authoring software, and other goodies. All versions include on-line support and help.

So, nearing the end of this article, I repeat the message, If you do not have anti virus software on your PC, run, do not walk, to your nearest software outlet and buy one of the many good AV packages available, install it, and then update it at least monthly.

Some useful sites to help with your awareness, in addition to the three excellent sites above of Norton, McAfee and Dr. Solomon.

A Word on Virus Hoaxes

Well-meaning but gullible internet users are playing into the hands of virus hoaxers. Alarmed at warnings about new viruses they find in their e-mail or on Internet newsgroups, they pass on the "advice" to friends and others in other news or discussion groups. But the viruses don't exist. The warnings are bogus. Their purpose: purely to spread alarm.

And they do, with their warnings about "viruses" with such names as Death Ray, Join the Crew, Takes Guts to say Jesus, and A.I.D.S. Hoax. Most of us receive a few of these a week, usually from a friend who uses their entire e-mail address book to send the bogus virus warning to all their friends and acquaintances.

The number of hoaxes is increasing, so much so that legitimate virus-fighting organizations have posted warnings on their Web sites not to fall for the false alarms and not to pass them along. They include anti-virus software developers, such as Symantec and the U.S. Department of Energy which maintains a Computer Incident Advisory Capability site with a section on hoaxes.

It states: "The Internet is constantly being flooded with information about computer viruses and Trojans. However, interspersed among real virus notices are computer virus hoaxes. While these hoaxes do not infect systems, they are still time-consuming and costly to handle.

IBM also maintains an anti-hoax page on its Web site. It states: "The people who invent rumors are malicious; those who circulate them are just dupes of the inventors. There is no reason to be abusive when responding to the innocent victims of these pranks; it's enough to give them the facts and enlist their cooperation in stopping the growing tide of hoaxes on the Net.

How to spot a hoax

Individuals should also be suspicious if the warning urges you to pass it on to your friends. This should raise a red flag that the warning may be a hoax.

What to do if you're not sure

Most anti-virus companies have a Web page containing information about most known viruses and hoaxes. Another useful Web site is the 'Computer Virus Myths home page', which contains descriptions of several known hoaxes and incidentally has good articles on computer viruses.

If you're a regular on the internet, viruses are here to stay, get used to it, but be ready, keep your Anti-Virus software up to date.

Al Doran is President of Phenix Management Int'l, a Toronto, Ont. management consulting firm specializing in HRMS issues. He is co-author of the HRMS book published by Nelson Canada, "Human Resource Management Systems". He may be reached at: [email protected] and his home page is

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