Cell Phone Virus Threat Real?

cell phone cellphones AP

Malicious programs that can delete address books. Junk messages that flood a cell phone's inbox. Stealthy code that uses Bluetooth wireless technology to sneak onto handsets.

Scared yet? Security experts say plagues like these will target mobile phones, but others contend cell phone viruses are the tech equivalent of smallpox: To the best of anyone's knowledge, they exist only in labs.

"We've had no reports of people actually seeing these viruses in their daily use," said Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant with London's Sophos PLC. "The only reports we've seen documented are antivirus researchers sending them to each other in their labs."

Japanese phone company NTT DoCoMo already sells phones with built-in antivirus software from McAfee Inc., and McAfee expects similar phones to be available in the United States and Europe in 2005.

But worried chatters should know that security experts this year found only five viruses that target mobile phones, and all of them were created and contained within labs, Cluley said.

Despite names like "Cabir" and "Skulls," the cell phone viruses created in the labs aren't as lethal as viruses that have attacked PCs.

For Skulls to work, it had to be downloaded and activated. After that, it rendered a user's programs inoperable and replaced the icons with skulls.

Earlier this year, Russian antivirus company Kaspersky said Cabir could affect Bluetooth-enabled phones that run on the Symbian operating system. According to the company, the virus could easily send itself as a file from its host phone to others, provided their Bluetooth reception was on.

Like Skulls, and unlike most PC viruses, Cabir has to be installed by the phone's user before it does anything. When it's installed, it creates several files on the phone and sends itself to other phones via Bluetooth. Even when installed, though, antivirus company TrendMicro Inc. ranks it as having low damage potential and says it can be removed fairly easily.

Although the virus threat to cell phones is, for now, purely academic, it doesn't take much to scare mobile phone users.

In Lebanon this year, an e-mail, which spread rapidly, warned of a virus that could appear on a cell phone through a phone call.

It read: "If you receive a phone call and your phone displays "UNAVAILABLE" on the screen (for most of digital mobile phones with a function to display incoming call telephone number), DON'T ANSWER THE CALL. END THE CALL IMMEDIATELY!!! BECAUSE IF YOU ANSWER THE CALL, YOUR PHONE WILL BE INFECTED BY THIS VIRUS."

Mikko Hypponen, director of Finland's F-Secure Corp., said viruses can't spread that way.

Mobile phones could eventually be susceptible to viruses because they use operating systems that turn them into minicomputers, virus watchers say.

"You look at the phones that run Microsoft applications, like Excel. These can be e-mailed from a computer to a phone or a PDA (personal digital assistant) and that opens the risk to a virus on the phone," said Brian Petersen, managing director of Copenhagen,
Denmark-based Virus112.

The organization, which monitors computer viruses worldwide, added threats to mobile phones to the list of what it tracks earlier this year.

Other threats come from Bluetooth, which lets people connect their phones and send messages, sync with programs like Outlook and read e-mail. The technology is handy for those who want to use wireless headsets with their phones or send data from a phone to
Bluetooth-enabled printers. Wireless keyboards and computer mice also employ it.

In the past, people have used Bluetooth to send messages to unsuspecting people just yards away, a practice known as bluejacking.

"If you don't know about bluejacking these messages can be quite a shock," Cluley said. "Unexpected messages on your mobile may lead you to believe you are the victim of a new mobile phone virus, or receiving cell phone spam."

Hypponen says virus writers could try to exploit cell phone users' unfamiliarity with their device.

"Once it gets hit by something malicious, that virus could use the phone to send messages or make toll calls while you're sleeping," he said.

But no virus yet has actually done that.


By Matt Moore
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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