It's the one holiday gift you'd be crazy to open. A new breed of computer virus. And in this holiday season, security experts say, you better watch out: These viruses can crash your hard drive.
Both the FBI and several of the nation's largest computer security firms have recently warned that several thousand new viruses have been unleashed "in the wild." The reasons for the increase vary. First off, viruses based on automated macros are so easy to launch almost anyone can do it, meaning the universe of hackers has increased.
But the news gets worse. Many of the new viruses (one called "Mypics") are timed Trojan Horses set to lurk on your hard drive and go off on Jan. 1.
In other words, your Y2K bug might not be a Y2K bug at all, but a data eating virus masquerading as Y2K. According to Marc Sokol, vice president of Computer Associates, "We are at Defcon 3. We're seeing more viruses in one week now than we saw in the last six months, and these viruses can take your computer down."
The company, which tracks and hunts viruses for both network clients and it's own global network has detected thousands of these new invaders.
For our benefit, Sokol had his staff take a computer offline and rigged it with "Mypics." And you'll love this part. "Mypics" has the ability to show up in your e-mail in-box disguised as mail from a friend. (The virus can read your address book.) The body of the e-mail reads simply, "Some pictures you might want to see," but below was an attachment labeled "pics4u.exe." Sokol clicked. Nothing happened.
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Except that the computer was infected at that point. To simulate New Year's Day, Sokol forwarded the Windows calendar to Jan. 1, and within seconds, we were looking at a black screen and the DOS prompt. I asked him, "So you are telling me the virus is wiping out the hard drive?"
He answered, "As clear as if you bought it new." This is not your average Melissa.
What to do? Security experts in the government and large corporations and doing updated virus scans now several times a day. Good for them. What can we do? Most PCs today come with built-in, commercial anti-virus software, but you need to update no. Go to your software Web site. The updates are there. Some of them are free.
Some experts also warn: Between now and Jan. 10, don't open attachments or e-mailed Christmas cards without verifying authenticity with the sender. The well-known commercial e-card vendors are perfectly reliable, but the expert advice is simply to check with your friend first. Trust but verify.