- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2003

The Northern Virginia computer firm Reliable Integration Services recently moved its headquarters from Dunn Loring to Vienna. Minutes after the company’s workers plugged in their computers for the first time at the new site, their anti-virus software swatted away five viruses.

Computer users at home aren’t always so fortunate.

Computer viruses and worms seem to be everywhere these days. These “malicious codes” wreak havoc on computer systems, creating problems ranging from slower system speeds to the obliteration of precious computer files.

A computer virus is a set of computer instructions, or code, that piggyback onto other programs and run simultaneously with them, often slowing them down or doing other destructive behavior.

A virus might reside in someone’s computer without ever reaching out to other computers.

Worms are more insidious. A computer worm is a virus that actively scans other computers for security holes to exploit, then sends itself out when it finds some.

Viruses are spread through e-mail attachments, downloadable programs or when a program containing a virus is started.

Just last week, police arrested an 18-year-old suspected of creating the SoBig.F virus to open holes in e-mail systems, costing the country millions in lost productivity.

Last month, worms dubbed either Blaster or LoveSan hit more than 500,000 computers, jamming the systems at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, among other places. Before that, the Welchia worm hit computer systems, including those of Air Canada, which canceled some flights due to the problem.

Valerie Perlowitz, the president and CEO of Reliable Integration Services, says it takes a number of high-profile viruses to teach the public that their computers are at risk.

“It’s not until you have a major event where people say, ‘Maybe I’m not as secure as I need to be,’” Ms. Perlowitz says. “I can’t tell you how many companies out there don’t have virus protection. They think it’s not a big deal.”

The truth, she says, is that such thinking can cost millions in damages.

Marty Lindner, team leader for incident handling at CERT Coordination Center, a nonprofit center for Internet security at Carnegie Mellon University, says computer users are always at risk of virus attacks. Installing anti-virus software is the best way to protect your computer from attacks, Mr. Lindner says.

“It’s good at detecting those things which we know and understand,” he says.

A race is forever on between the virus authors and the teams of security workers charged with thwarting their plans. Once a new virus emerges, those security workers race to decode it and pass the information on to the general public, either via Web sites offering virus information or through various anti-virus software packages.

“A virus requires human intervention for something to happen,” he says, while a worm may be spread by simply turning on the computer.

Types of human interaction include visiting a corrupt Web page and downloading a virus-filled attachment. Notorious computer worms like Blaster and Code Red can hit a computer without the user doing anything.

Kelly Martin, senior product manager with Symantec Security in Cupertino, Calif., says the current virus concerns are the worst in recent memory.

“Viruses are evolving in different ways,” Mrs. Martin says. “You’re seeing it through e-mail, through network sharing or if you go to a malicious Web site.”

She points to viruses spread through file sharing — when two computers link up to swap information — and e-mail-based worms as reasons computer users without protective software should be alarmed.

Worse, Mrs. Martin says those who buy and install the latest anti-virus software programs should not feel safe if they don’t keep up to date on the latest upgrades.

“You must have the latest virus definitions,” she says. “[Anti-virus software] is only as good as your latest virus update.”

She says her company, which produces the popular Norton Antivirus packages, sends weekly updates to registered software owners. In times of massive virus updates, those updates on how to block the latest viruses and worms might come several times in a single day.

She estimates that about 40 percent of computer users don’t have any anti-virus protection on their computers.

“They believe if they practice safe surfing habits they’ll be OK,” she says.

Those users, for example, only open e-mail from recognizable addresses. The problem there is if a friend’s computer is infected, the virus could tap into the friend’s e-mail address book and send you an infected e-mail.

Norton Antivirus 2004 retails for $49.95 for a one-year subscription, with a yearly $14.95 renewal fee, she says.

The level of computer apathy toward virus protection services confounds Mike Burstein, president of Dominion Repair Services in Alexandria. He estimates that up to 80 percent of the computers his firm services lack virus protection software.

In fact, his company distributes an 11-page handout to its customers on the best way to protect their computers, and the firm still services return customers for lack of computer protection.

For those watching their budgets, Mr. Burstein says some software companies offer basic virus software for free on their sites. Others offer basic services, like Computer Associate’s ETrust’s anti-virus package, for an initial fee of $25, plus a $12 for yearly renewals.

A dollop of common sense along with anti-virus software is a good combination to protect one’s computer from harm.

Ms. Perlowitz says it’s generally good advice not to open e-mail, particularly e-mail with attachments, from people you don’t know.

If an e-mail appears to be from a legitimate source, like Microsoft, the computer user still should exercise caution. A legitimate Microsoft missive wouldn’t ask the user to download anything or check out an attachment. A reliable e-mail message might refer the reader to a customer service or technology support team for more information.

“If you’re not sure, call them up,” she says.

Several phony e-mails have circulated around the Web in the last six to eight months purporting to be Microsoft security bulletins, but they actually have contained the [email protected] worm, according to a Microsoft spokesman.

The company says it would never send a computer patch — a quickly assembled bit of software designed to counteract a virus — via e-mail. Instead, it might provide a link to a Web page with more information.

Mr. Lindner says the damage caused by a virus often can be easily contained by following the advice offered by your computer’s anti-virus software package. It gets stickier if the virus in question is more advanced than the anti-virus information currently available, he says.

It’s hard for the computer owner to know if the virus has been completely eradicated or just partially blocked. The ultimate solution, he says, is to reinstall the computer’s operating system from scratch, even though it means losing all the information on your hard drive.

“That sounds harsh, but that’s the only right thing,” he says.

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