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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | PC FOCUS / LAWRENCE J. MAGID

Infection-Fighting Software to Help Combat Computer Viruses

September 09, 1996|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

I knew something was up on the morning of Aug. 22 when the phone started ringing before 6. Radio stations around the country wanted to know how their listeners could protect themselves from the Hare virus that was set to go off that day. One radio reporter was in a near-panic. Someone had told him that the only way to protect himself was not to turn on his PC that day.

I told him and his listeners to relax.

Although it is true that the Hare virus is capable of wiping out all the data on your hard disk, the odds of your having it are very low. Sure enough, by the end of the day there were few reported cases of Hare virus attacks. Nevertheless, I expect another rash of calls on Sept. 22, when the virus is set to strike again.

Virus alerts occur several times a year. I get similar calls every March 6, which is Michelangelo's birthday and the day the Michelangelo virus is set to strike. Although Michelangelo is more prevalent than Hare, neither is among the 10 most commonly reported viruses. Yet the attention they get serves as a good reminder that it's important to take precautions against viruses in general.

First the basics. A computer virus is a program or file designed to do damage or simply annoy or even amuse the person whose machine is infected. The Stoned virus, for example, doesn't destroy anything, but instead displays the message, "Your computer is stoned."

Some viruses cause programs or data files to slow down, others cause your disk to run out of space. And yes, there are some that will wipe out some or all of your files. All are uninvited guests that deserve to be evicted.

Technically speaking, viruses are programs that can replicate themselves or spread to other programs and files. Trojan Horse and Worm refer to programs that also do damage.

Most viruses are spread by infected programs, but merely having an infected program on your disk won't necessarily trigger the virus. It is triggered and spread when you run the program. Other viruses attach themselves to the boot sector of disks. All floppies and hard disks have a boot sector even if they are not a start-up disk. If you place an infected floppy diskette in drive A and start your computer, the boot sector virus can spread to your hard disk's boot sector. It may not do any initial damage, but it can later infect other files and may eventually destroy your data.

Infected files can be spread through floppy disks, over the Internet or through online services.

Viruses should be taken seriously, but there is no reason to panic. I've been using computers and online services since 1978, and as far as I know, I've only twice been infected by viruses, neither of which did any damage. However, I still believe it's important to take precautions. My home has never been burglarized, but I still lock my doors and keep my insurance payments up to date.

Until recently, the only likely way to get a virus was to run an infected program. But there is a new breed of virus that is even more pervasive. Viruses can now be attached to data files from programs such as Microsoft Word or Excel. According to Symantec's Anti-Virus Research Center's Web site (http://www.symantec.com/avcenter/index.html), the most commonly reported virus is the Concept virus (also known as Prank and Word Macro), which is spread through Microsoft Word files. The virus is set off by a macro--a little program that can be embedded in a document and run automatically when the file is loaded into Word. Laroux, a similar though far less common virus, attaches itself to Microsoft Excel files.

There are several ways to protect yourself against the threat of viruses. First, you should get an anti-virus program such as Norton AntiVirus from Symantec (http://www.symantec.com), VirusScan from McAfee ([408] 988-3832 or http://www.mcafee.com) or Dr. Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit ([617] 273-7400 or http://www.drsolomon.com/). These programs, which typically cost about $65, scan your computer's memory for evidence of an infection and can also scan your hard disk for infected files.

All the leading anti-virus programs remain in memory while you're using your computer so they can check for viruses as you load programs and data. Norton AntiVirus also checks files as you download them from the Internet. WebScan, a companion to McAfee's VirusScan program, protects you from viruses spread via the World Wide Web and e-mail.

The companies that make anti-virus software generally provide online updates on their Web sites or via online services. I just learned how important it is to avail yourself of these updates. I have been using both Norton AntiVirus and McAfee VirusScan for months, but in preparing for this article, I loaded newer versions of both programs and discovered that two files on my notebook computer were infected with the Concept virus.

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