The proliferation of the "ILove-You" virus last week should serve as a wake-up call. In the interconnected age of the Internet, everyone is vulnerable. While large corporations and government institutions around the world were hardest hit, the e-mail-borne virus--technically a "worm"--also sneaked into home computers.
While there is no way to eliminate the chance of being infected by a computer virus, there are steps you can take to minimize your risk and things you can do after you are infected.
First, you should always have an up-to-date backup copy of your data files. I know this sounds like I'm preaching, but it is your best protection against viruses, machine failures, software bugs and even fires and earthquakes. You can buy a 100-megabyte Zip drive for about $100. A 120-megabyte SuperDisk drive that plugs into a PC or Mac USB port costs less than $150. You can also get a tape backup system or, for about $250, a CD-ROM writer that lets you back up your data to CDs that can be read on any PC.
Another option is to back up your data through the Internet. One advantage is that your storage is off-premises, so if your house is hit by a fire your files are still protected. Connect.com charges $14.95 a month for unlimited backup. SafeGuard Interactive (http://www.sgii.com) charges $9.95 a month. Driveway.com gives you free storage of up to 100 megabytes, which may be enough for your crucial data files.
Another way to protect your files is to use anti-virus software. The leading programs, Norton AntiVirus (http://www.norton.com), McAfee Virus Scan (http://www.mcafee.com) and Trend Micro's PC-cillin (http://www.trendmicro.com), typically cost about $30 and do a reasonable job of protecting your system. You can buy and download your program online or download free trial versions that will protect right away. The programs can be updated via the Internet, and it is very important to update yours regularly.
In addition to scanning files already in your hard drive, the software scans e-mail as it arrives. As a test, I updated Norton AntiVirus with the latest bug detector and then deliberately sent myself a copy of the ILoveYou virus. The software caught it on the way in and gave me the option of deleting it before it was even downloaded.
But even anti-virus software is no 100% guarantee of protection. Most anti-virus programs weren't ready for the ILoveYou virus when it hit our shores on Thursday. Updates were, of course, available later that day by the anti-virus software firms.
With or without anti-virus software, you should be cautious. Most viruses are spread through computer programs or files, and in most cases they aren't triggered until you run or open the infected file. I got about 30 copies of the Love Bug virus, but my machine wasn't infected because I didn't double click on any of the attached files. ILoveYou, like the Melissa virus that struck last year, automatically sends itself to people listed in the user's e-mail address book, so if you get it, it's likely to be from someone you know and trust. My rule is simple. I don't open an attached file--even from someone I know--unless I am quite sure that it's a legitimate file that the person really sent me. If in doubt, I call or e-mail the person before I open the file.
While we're on the subject of attached files, this is as good a time as any to get on my soapbox about the overuse of attachments. Many people send attached files unnecessarily.
I frequently get press releases and other messages as Microsoft Word files when a simple e-mail message would do. Some people like to send me digital photos online. That's great if I really want the photo, but it's best to ask the person before sending one.
Of course, the vast majority of these files don't contain viruses, but it's possible for lots of file types--including Microsoft Word files and Excel data files--to contain a destructive virus. In fact, some viruses' main function is to secretly plant themselves in Word files that people send to others.
But even if viruses weren't an issue, attached files are almost always a lot bigger than regular e-mail messages, which means they take longer to send and receive and clog up the Internet. I find them especially annoying when I travel overseas, pay as much as $1 a minute for a slow connection, and then have to sort through attachments.
While some viruses make their presence known or just erase your hard drive, others hide invisibly on your computer, waiting to trigger themselves at a specific date or when you perform a certain task. Some may secretly violate your security or privacy, or the virus may cause your computer to slow down or act erratically.
Plenty of things besides viruses can cause a computer to slow down or act erratically, but if you have any reason to suspect you have a virus, immediately run an up-to-date anti-virus program. The program will scan your machine for any sign of a virus and, if it finds one, will attempt to remove it.
You can learn more about ILoveYou and other viruses at http://www.larrysworld.com/virus.htm. Other sources of information include the Symantec AntiVirus Research Center (http://www.sarc.com) and the Computer Emergency Response Team (http://www.cert.org).
Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web site is at http://www.larrysworld.com.