Sweet Melissa

Computer Life column for April 3, 1999

Richard Gordon

The name "Melissa" reminds me of the days when the Allman Brothers 1972 double-LP "Eat a Peach" would often find itself on my college roommate's turntable. You do remember LPs, don't you?

Unless your radio, TV, and computer are all busted, you know that Melissa is also the name of the first computer virus to cause an FBI alert.

Melissa is an MS Word macro virus that only affects Windows users of MS Word 97 and Word 2000. It spreads thanks to another Microsoft product: MS Outlook, a popular desktop mail package. But your copy of MS Word--and every document you open with an infected copy of MS Word--can be infected even if you use Netscape, Eudora, or another desktop mail client and blithely click on an infected attachment to a message or if your mail program is set to open MS Word files automatically.

In addition to the usual discussions of a virus alert, Melissa's appearance has raised three important issues.

The conventional wisdom is that you should delete programs and files you didn't ask for, particularly when they have been sent to you by someone you don't know. But copies of Melissa reproduce themselves using MS Outlook's address book file. Therefore, Melissa can appear as an attachment to e-mail from a regular correspondent.

The Melissa outbreak should remind us to be careful about all attachments to e-mail. As one participant in a non-computer-related mailing list advised her fellow list members, "I have my e-mail preferences set so that I do not receive downloads automatically. Given the rash of virus problems lately, that seems like the safest option now."

This advice leads to a second point. A lot of people are using desktop mail readers precisely because it's so easy to open attachments in those programs. But macro viruses like Melissa highlight the problem of placing a higher value on convenience than safety. It's a pain in the posterior, but you should use anti-virus software to scan every file you import, open, or download from another source.

The third issue is raised by the publicity surrounding Melissa. Thanks to a lot of good information shared between people all over the globe, Melissa has been kept to a mere nuisance. However, because the publicity has been so helpful in this case, I bet we are about to be hit with a plague of virus hoaxes.

You know the ones. The ones that include a dire warning of an allegedly super-destructo virus--then ask if you would be so kind as to share this warning with everyone you know.

Comes right down to it, whether it's a hoax or a real virus, it's our own behavior that allows the pox to spread.

Some sites to visit

There are lots of good Web sites about viruses in general and Melissa in particular. This week I've visited c|net's Virus Attack site (www.cnet.com/Content/Reports/Special/Virus), the University of Delaware's Virus Information area (www.udel.edu/topics/virus)--including information about virus hoaxes, and ZDNet's special report on Melissa and her kin (www.zdnet.com/zdnn/special/melissavirus.html).

Tip of the week

Virus Software

You can skip or postpone an upgrade to your favorite word processor or Web browser, but unless your computer is locked in a closet and never used, you must continually update your computer's anti-virus software.

If you share diskettes with others, if you download files from the Internet or bulletin boards, or if you receive attachments to e-mail messages, you know that using anti-virus software is a must.

Whatever anti-virus software you use, it is imperative that you read the documentation that came with it and, most importantly, follow the directions for updating the software regularly. Then your computer and files will be protected against Melissa--last week's virus, Papa--this week's variant, next week's virus, and the one that hits the week after that.

Copyright © 1999, The News Journal Company

Computer Life Index

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.