Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Cold Season

Early warning is key, even with computer viruses

By James Hanback Jr.

APRIL 19, 1999:  Early detection and prevention measures are key to stopping a plethora of human diseases and viral infections in their tracks. Let a health problem go undiagnosed or untreated, and you run the risk of creating a larger problem as the disease or virus tears at your body and your immune system.

Nowadays, whenever I feel a cold or flu coming on, I inevitably drop by my local grocery store and buy a gallon of Tropicana orange juice (with pulp). It has been my experience that the orange juice helps ward off those illnesses that can cause me to miss days of work or otherwise make my life miserable. Either that, or I've psychologically trained myself into thinking that it works that way.

What was the old saying? "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

So now among my home remedies and prevention measures for viruses I will count the early warning I received about the Melissa virus: a Microsoft Word macro virus which started spreading rapidly around the Internet on March 25.

Melissa works hand-in-hand with Microsoft Office macro programming features to distribute itself to the first 50 names stored in a user's Outlook address book, most often with a message headed: "Important Message From" and the name of an infected individual. If downloaded and opened, the virus can infect other Word documents and templates and, at certain times, displays a quote from an episode of The Simpsons.

The virus spread so rapidly that it warranted alerts not only from the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-- http://www.cert.org), but also antivirus manufacturers and news organizations all over the Internet. Days later, alerts from Network Associates Inc., Microsoft, and others went out about Melissa A (which is sent with a blank subject line), and Papa and Papa.b, which accomplish similar tasks as Melissa but work through Microsoft Excel spreadsheets rather than Word documents.

Reports at ABCNEWS.com last week indicated that Melissa (reportedly named after a topless dancer from Florida) was actually created by combining other computer viruses by other authors. Its alleged author has been arrested and could face a maximum of 40 years in prison and a $480,000 fine, according to news reports.

However, it was not from CERT, an antivirus software company, or the news that I received the first information about Melissa, which in turn enabled me to make sure I took precautions that might help prevent the spread of the virus to my computer. Instead, I received that first bit of news from a local Internet mailing list controlled by SouthEast 2600 (se2600-- http://www.se2600.org), a regional chapter of 2600 magazine (2600 is a well-known hacker publication).

It wasn't long after Melissa was reported to antivirus manufacturers that word of the virus came across the se2600 mailing list.

I was happy it did. Before most of the world had even read about Melissa from the major news organizations, I was on my way to my ounce of prevention: steps all computer users should take to help reduce the likelihood of a computer virus infection.

Unless a user has completely isolated his computer from the outside world, no protection against computer viruses is complete and guaranteed. Naturally, it is not feasible to disconnect oneself from modern computing like that, but there are ways to help prevent the spread of known computer viruses:

  • If you don't have computer virus detection software, get it. And make certain that it is configured to regularly scan your hard drive and any data that comes from other sources such as floppy disks, CD-ROMs, networks, e-mail attachments, and the Internet. Among the most popular products are McAfee VirusScan (http://www.mcafee.com) and Norton AntiVirus (http://www.norton.com).

  • If you do have virus detection software, make sure you keep your data files up-to-date. New viruses are released into the wild all the time, and a regular check for the latest updates from your antivirus vendor is a good idea. Many vendors allow users to download the latest antivirus data files from their Web sites.

  • Be wary of e-mail attachments. Lots of cutesy programs and greetings get forwarded all over the Internet. If you receive an executable file via e-mail, scan it for viruses and trojan horses before you launch it. And only launch it if you're absolutely certain you can trust it. Even then it might be wise to make backups of all your critical data first.

  • Disable Microsoft Office macros. Unless you absolutely must have them turned on, it's a good idea to disable macros in your Microsoft Office software. Melissa is not the first--and won't the be last--Word macro virus to spread. If a user enables the "Macros Virus Protection" option in Word 97, the program will display a prompt when macros are present and ask if they should be enabled.

  • Stay informed. I was lucky in that I am subscribed to an e-mail list of well-informed and vigilant people who presented not only information they had obtained, but links to other sites with even more information. It would be wise to sign up for mailing lists dedicated specifically to virus alerts. (The se2600 list is not an alerts list, but an informational list for people interested in computer hacking, security, and all things related.) The Symantec Antivirus Research Center (http://www.symantec.com), for one, provides an e-mail virus alert service.

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