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Computer Viruses: How Serious a Threat?

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How many times have you heard a comment like this: “My computer is acting up. It must be a virus.” Truth is, most computer glitches are caused by software conflicts or “user error.”

Viruses do get a lot of publicity, and it’s easy to see why. They have an ominous and mysterious aura. But just how can a machine catch a virus? And can computer viruses, like such human viruses as HIV, be deadly?

Virus Basics

Computer viruses are simply small computer programs whose sole aim is to do harm. They’re written by disturbed individuals, the kind of sociopaths who place razor blades in apples at Halloween. Like human viruses, computer viruses can replicate, spreading like a disease from one computer to another through shared floppy disks, infected CD-ROMs, contaminated files attached to e-mail messages, or over the Internet.
Some viruses-more hoaxes than true viruses-are innocuous, doing no more harm than scaring people with a message flashing on screen that reads “Gotcha!” Other viruses can destroy all the data on your hard drive.

Practical Self-Defense
& Antivirus Software

Computer viruses can’t harm your hardware. So the first line of defense, as with every potential computer disaster, is to make regular backups of the vital data stored on your hard drive and to ensure that the backups themselves are reliable.The next safety step is to consider using antivirus software. Some people suspect that new viruses are created and spread by the very companies who develop antivirus programs. After all, there’s a lot of money to be made here.Sales of antivirus software reached $135 million last year, according to estimates from the market research firm, PC Data. And according to another market research firm, Ziff-Davis’s Market Intelligence, five of the ten top-selling utility programs are antivirus packages.Virus-protection developers do what they can to keep viruses in the mind of the public. A survey last year by the National Computer Security Association indicated that 99.33% of medium and large organizations in North America have experienced at least one virus infection, and that every year, on average, four out of every ten computers in these organizations become infected. That sounds dire indeed. But who paid for the survey? Virus-protection companies.It should be pointed out that the National Computer Security Association includes as one of its aims the promotion of ethical practices among virus-protection companies, and there’s no evidence that a virus-protection company has ever let loose a virus it was studying in its labs.What’s more, despite the sensationalism, investing in an antivirus program is still a prudent course of action if: (1) you share or trade files with business associates or clients, (2) you do a lot of program downloading or otherwise try out lots of new software, (3) several people have access to your PC, or (4) your PC is part of a local area network.

Be Brave & Informed

Whether you buy an antivirus program or not, don’t become paralyzed by fear of viruses.To begin with, your computer can’t become infected by reading e-mail messages. Viruses, as programs, must be run, or “executed,” to do their damage, and simply reading an e-mail message doesn’t run anything except the programs you already have on your system.However the situation becomes slightly more complicated with e-mail attachments. These appendages to e-mail messages can potentially include “macro” viruses, which can infect your system and are the fastest growing type of virus. But you have to initiate action beyond just reading the e-mail message, such as clicking on the attachment with your mouse, for these mini-programs to do their dirty work.Fortunately, you have protection here as well. Many people simply make it a practice not to open e-mail attachments if they come from someone they don’t know. What’s more, the latest versions of antivirus programs include protection against macro viruses.Some people avoid the Internet entirely for fear of catching a virus. A few words of reassurance. While it’s theoretically possible for your system to become infected with a virus by visiting a Web site whose creator coded in “land mines” in the form of malicious Java applets or ActiveX controls, there have been no reports of such sites, and if one did appear, it would be shut down quickly.Along with curtailing your activities, the threat of viruses can also make you worry needlessly. If you receive an e-mail message warning about a hideous-sounding virus, it might be a hoax. The US Department of Energy has created a Web page at http://ciac.llnl.gov/ciac/CIACHoaxes.html that describes virus- and other Internet-hoaxes. Another good virus-hoax site is Computer Virus Myths at http://kumite.com/myths.

Final Safety Tips

Virus infections do occur, and they can cause considerable damage. If you want to invest in antivirus software, Norton AntiVirus is the best all-around antivirus program, though McAfee VirusScan has many loyal supporters as well. Both cost less than $50 for the single-user versions.Other precautions to note? It’s wise to download files only from reputable Web sites or FTP file repositories. And avoid “pirate” sites and the “Warez” newsgroups where people illegally trade commercial programs. These files are more likely than others to be infected with viruses.Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book “Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.” He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or http://members.home.net/reidgold.
This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor July, 1998, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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