Virus Hoaxes

Computer Life column for February 28, 1998 by
Richard Gordon


A colleague who had just received her fifth phony "watch out for this virus" announcement in two days recently suggested that I caution my readers about these inane practical jokes.

Lots of us receive dire virus warnings via e-mail, all of which end with the admonition that we should forward the message to everyone we know so that our friends can be saved from a dreadful scourge.

There are lots of real computer viruses. However, most of the e-mail virus warnings we receive are allegedly-hilarious hoaxes.

So many people at the University of Delaware were receiving and re-circulating these warnings, that we put up a special virus hoax Web page (www.udel.edu/topics/virus/hoax.html).

The US Department of Energy's Computer Incident Advisory Capability team (CIAC) says that, although virus hoaxes "do not infect systems, they are still time consuming and costly to handle. At CIAC, we find that we are spending much more time de-bunking hoaxes than handling real virus incidents."

According to the CIAC, the first documented virus hoax dates back to an October 1988 message that urged readers to "stick to 1200 baud" until an insidious virus spread by the new 2400 bps modems could be eradicated.

Two key points

  1. Your computer cannot contract a virus just from your reading an e-mail message. Many of these hoaxes claim otherwise.

    However, there is one big caution: watch out for infected attachments.

    Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Lotus AmiPro attachments to an e-mail message can be infected with a macro virus, and any program that someone sends you as an attachment can be infected with a program virus. Scan any attached programs and any Word, Excel, or AmiPro files for viruses before opening them, and you'll always be safe.

  2. You should never forward a virus warning, or any other kind of computer disaster warning, to other people without checking it out first. Many "successful" hoaxes are filled with technical-sounding language and appear to come from reliable sources, perhaps from a noted university.

    Where can you check out a virus warning? Two of the most reliable listings of virus hoaxes are at the Data Fellows Web site (www.Datafellows.com/news/hoax.htm) and at the CIAC site (ciac.llnl.gov/ciac/CIACHoaxes.html).

    If you don't see the warning listed there, check with the Help Desk at your Internet Service Provider or check the web site for your virus protection software. I'm a Dr. Solomon's user, so I would visit their Web site for starters (www.drsolomon.com).

    Why a hoax?

    I can think of only one for-profit virus hoax: The "Irina" hoax began as part of the publicity campaign for a British publishing project. Usually, however, virus hoaxes are mean-spirited attempts to make other people look foolish-the Internet equivalent of unscrewing the top of a salt shaker in a busy restaurant, then sitting back to "watch the fun."

    As the Data Fellows point out, "Hoax warnings are typically scare alerts started by malicious people-and passed on by innocent users who think they are helping the community by spreading the warning."

    A virus hoaxster wants to laugh at us when we expose our ignorance by forwarding his hoax.

    The Gullibility Virus

    There have been some devastatingly funny double hoaxes: satirical hoax announcements that try to make people think before acting.

    One of the best of these is Bob Harris' "Gullibility Virus Warning" that first surfaced in my inbox in 0ctober 1997 (www.sccu.edu/faculty/R_Harris/warning.htm). Prof. Harris reports that over 150 copies or adaptations of his warning are now on the Web.

    Harris' warning announces that

    many Internet users are becoming infected by a new virus that causes them to believe without question every groundless story, legend, and dire warning that shows up in their inbox or on their browser.

    Fortunately, his warning includes the antidote to the Gullibility Virus: links to real information about viruses, virus hoaxes, and evaluating the information you find on-line.


Copyright © 1998, The News Journal Company

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Richard Gordon helps support faculty, staff and student computing at the University of Delaware. E-mail questions, comments or suggestions to richard@inet.net, or write him at The News Journal, Box 15505, Wilmington, DE 19850. Although each note cannot be answered individually, reader comments and questions will often be incorporated in future columns.