The Best of the Webserver:  Crazy Aunts and "Dangerous" Email

By Kenny Williams

(By popular demand I am reprinting a previous column.)

My aunt is notorious for sending me seemingly endless amounts of e-mail that is either supposed to be  either emotionally touching or helpful in some way. Instead they usually fall somewhere between useless and annoying. The emails that fall into the annoying category are usually virus hoaxes.

A virus hoax is an e-mail that perpetuates a lie that plays off the fears of computer users. They usually have something to do with an e-mail that, if opened, will destroy your computer and maybe even your life.  At best these hoaxes are like a crank call you make to your neighbor at three in the morning. In worst cases they are like a false bomb threat.

Here is a typical example of one of these annoying emails. This was an actual e-mail my Aunt sent me:

In a message dated 1/12/01 4:08:03 AM Pacific Standard Time,

Crazyaunt@yahoo.com writes: THIS IS A NEW VIRUS WITH NO CURE!!!!!!!

PLEASE, SEND THIS INFORMATION TO EVERY PERSON IN YOUR ADDRESS BOOK.

IF YOU RECEIVE AN E-MAIL THAT READS "UPGRADE INTERNET" DO NOT OPEN IT, AS IT CONTAINS AN EXECUTABLE NAMED "PERRIN.EXE." IT WILL ERASE ALL THE DATA IN YOUR HARD DRIVE AND IT WILL STAY IN MEMORY. EVERY TIME THAT YOU UPLOAD ANY DATA, IT WILL BE AUTOMATICALLY ERASED AND YOU WILL NOT BE  ABLE TO USE  YOUR COMPUTER AGAIN.

THIS INFORMATION WAS PUBLISHED YESTERDAY IN THE CNN WEB SITE. THIS IS A VERY DANGEROUS VIRUS. TO THIS DATE, THERE IS NO KNOWN ANTIVIRUS PROGRAM FOR THIS PARTICULAR VIRUS.

PLEASE, FORWARD THIS INFORMATION TO YOUR FRIENDS, SO THAT THEY WILL BE ON THE ALERT.

ALSO CHECK THE LIST BELOW, SENT BY IBM, WITH THE NAMES OF SOME E-MAILS THAT, IF RECEIVED, SHOULD NOT BE OPENED AND MUST BE DELETED IMMEDIATELY, BECAUSE THEY CONTAIN ATTACHED VIRUSES. THIS WAY YOUR COMPUTER WILL BE SAFE.

( I have left out the list to save column space) ONCE AGAIN, DO NOT OPEN THESE E-MAILS AND PASS THIS INFORMATION ON TO YOUR FRIENDS AS SOON AS POSSIBLE!

According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Internet Hoax web site  located at http://hoaxbusters.ciac.org, "reading a mail message does not execute the mail message. Trojans and viruses have been found as executable attachments to mail messages, but they must be extracted and executed to do any harm. CIAC still affirms that reading E-mail, using typical mail agents, can not activate malicious code delivered in or with the message."

In other words, you can't get a virus or Trojan from just reading e-mail. You can, though, get a virus or activate a Trojan by saving an e-mail attachment (even a Microsoft Word or Excel document) and then "running" the program later.

It is important to understand, that while some files (like Microsoft Word documents) would, at first, seem to not really be "programs," they can contain "macros" that could be automatically run when opening these files. These destructive macros can wreak just as much damage as any other viruses. So similar precautions should be taken.

According to a reputable site called Computer Virus Myths located at http://www.vmyths.com there are "ZERO" known e-mail, HTML, Java, JavaScript, ActiveX, CMOS, video RAM, BIOS, GIF/JPG/JPEG, or AVI/MOV viruses (Editorís note: Two years later we have now seen JavaScript and ActiveX viruses. Even today, however, there are far more hoaxes than viruses). They further explain, "There are several methods to identify virus hoaxes, but first consider what makes a successful hoax on the Internet. There are two known factors that make a successful virus hoax, they are: (1) technical sounding language, and (2) credibility by association. If the warning uses the proper technical jargon, most individuals, including technologically savvy individuals, tend to believe the warning is real." If you want to check if a chain letter is a known hoax, select the A-Z listing on the Computer Virus Myths site and be slow to scream "the sky is falling" the instant you get an alert.

On a related topic, there are also "urban legends" that you need to look for including the Craig Shergold / Make-A-Wish Foundation plea to send business cards for a new record in the Guinness Book of World Records and the Jessica Mydek plea to forward an e-mail that will create a three cent donation from the American Cancer Society for each name added. Both claims are hog wash and have been denied on their Web site by the respective organizations.

How do you protect yourself from real viruses? Simple, get a good virus-checking program and use it! I recommend McAfee and their on-line Clinic located at http://www.mcafee.com . for the latest in virus information on the web visit http://www.antivirus.com/ . More importantly, become informed on viruses, dissuade people from spreading virus rumors and, above all, use a good virus-checking program on a regular basis.

If you need computer help or have any questions, comments, suggestions please feel free to e-mail me at WebServerColumn@yahoo.com

The WebServer is a weekly computer column with a circulation of over 120,000 readers in three different publications. Look for your weekly dose of WebServer in The Caribbean Connection in Atlanta, Orlando, and Miami and in The Observer News in SouthShore.

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