A Virus For Cell Phones, Handhelds?

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A new virus targeting a Spanish-based cellular phone network could be the forerunner of a threat to wireless phones, pagers and handheld computers.

Like the so-called "Love Bug" that infected computer networks last month, the virus is designed to spread by e-mail among computers using Microsoft's Outlook program.

CBS News Correspondent Richard Roth reports it's being called "Timofonica." Timo is slang for prank in Spanish and the virus target is the cellular phone network in Spain.

Yet Telefonica, owner of Spain's largest cell phone network, said it had received no reports of problems. "We have no complaint from any customer about it," said spokesman Ed Holland.

F-Secure, Network Associates and Kaspersky Lab, an anti-virus company based in Russia, did. In one report, a single corporate user inadvertently sent out 500 copies of the "Timofonica" bug.

Experts say the virus could be modified to hit any cell phone that can get pages through an e-mail address. A large number of messages could clog the network.

"I've asked the researchers to be extremely aware that someone will probably try to replicate this in America," said Vincent Gullotto, director of the AVERT anti-virus center for Santa Clara, Calif.-based Network Associates. "It won't be hard."

In theory, the virus could cause infected computers to send unwanted text messages over the Internet to mobile phones.

"Virus writers are starting to target handhelds and mobile phones," said Mikko Hypponen, chief scientist for the Finnish-based F-Secure antivirus company. "That's what's significant about this virus."

In practice, experts who track viruses, and found this one, say it hasn't happened yet.

"Even in the worst cases cell phones wouldn't actually be infected," said Graham Cluley of Sophos Anti-Virus. "They'd just receive messages that could be deleted."

"If you send enough e-mail to a cell phone, it can basically jam up the network and possibly even jam up the phone," said CBS News Computer Consultant Larry Magid. "It's not a virus that actually infects the phone and makes it go bad, as do computer viruses, but more a form of spam, clogging the cell phone with unwanted messages."

According to F-Secure, the "Timofonica" virus is spread in a traditional manner - as an e-mail attachment. When a recipient opens the infected attachment, the virus plus a message critical of Telefonica is sent to each e-mail address in the user's address book.

The twist is this virus also sends a text message to a randomly selected cell phone on Telefonica's network each time it spreads.

In addition to replicating itself, it also inserts a dangerous Trojan horse program into the user's computer. That program wipes out the user's hard drive as well as the basic configuration settings that tell the computer what kind of hardwaris installed.

Vincente Coll, a representative in Spain for Kaspersky Labs, said the recent spate of virus attacks using e-mail attachments made users more vigilant, and that should help stem the spread of Timofonica.

"The paranoia of 'ILOVEYOU' made people not trust attachments," Coll said.

But Gullotto said as the operating systems for handheld devices become more sophisticated to allow the creation of miniature automation programs known as macros, the potential to wreak havoc will grow.

"Automation is the key," he said. "Once macros start working for phones, then we'll have a problem," he said.

That points to a hazard of technology mimicking biology, reports Roth: With a virus that might be engineered to jump an electronic barrier between the species, might toaster ovens be the next target?

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