- The Washington Times - Monday, July 26, 2004

The world’s largest search engines, including popular Google, were overwhelmed yesterday by a fast-spreading computer virus designed to gather e-mail addresses.

Internet users found the Google, Yahoo, Lycos and Altavista search sites either slow or unreachable for several hours as the “MyDoom.M” virus spread via e-mail to thousands of computers and prompted hundreds of millions of search queries.

“What is unique about this particular virus is the way it gathers e-mail addresses,” said Maksym Schipka, a senior virus researcher at MessageLabs, a New York-based e-mail security company. “Instead of sending the virus into nowhere, it will get more reliable addresses that will work.”

The virus spreads through e-mail attachments designed to look like legitimate documents, with subject lines like “delivery failed,” “report,” “hi error” and “status.”

If an e-mail user opens the attachment, the virus sends itself to people listed in the computer’s e-mail address book. The virus then checks search engines to see if e-mail addresses are valid.

It does not appear that the virus was designed to cause search engines to crash, though analysts said search engines were likely trying to process more messages in an hour than they normally would in an entire day.

“The search engine effect is kind of incidental,” said Dan Frasnelli, manager of the technical assistance center at Netsec, a Herndon Internet security firm.

Computers infected with the virus could be taken over by spammers who use the machine to send out millions of unwanted e-mail advertisements, or by other criminals who use software to steal personal information from machines.

To avoid having a computer infected with the virus, security professionals suggest users download the most up-to-date computer patches from Microsoft and install the most recent versions of anti-virus software. They also advise computer users to never open an e-mail attachment unless they recognize it in some way.

By late yesterday, search engines were working normally in most places, and Google downplayed the problem.

“At no point was the Google Web site significantly impaired, and service for all users and networks is expected to be restored shortly,” the company said in a statement yesterday afternoon.

Postini, a Redwood City, Calif., e-mail security company, said it scanned more than 300,000 e-mail messages containing the MyDoom.M virus, a threat to small businesses that aren’t equipped to handle large increases in e-mail traffic.

While the virus is not spreading as quickly as earlier versions of MyDoom, some analysts said its ability to use search engines suggests virus writers are becoming more savvy.

Google’s problems came on the same day it announced plans to issue 24.6 million shares in an initial public offering. The Mountain View, Calif., company is hoping to raise between $108 and $126 per share, or as much as $3.3 billion.

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