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ISSUE 528: The high-tech office- Dec 7 1999

ALAN ZISMAN

E-mail virus warnings can be a destructive force

It must be because it's flu season, but computer rumours seem to be spreading like viruses. Just because you read about it, doesn't make it true (unless it's in this paper, and especially in this column, of course).

With e-mail, even a message from a trusted friend or co-worker may not always include the truth. No, I'm not suggesting that your friends and colleagues purposely lie to you, but the ease of e-mail allows unsubstantiated rumours to spread at the speed of electrons.

For example, BIV reader Greg Condon e-mailed me:

"I have recently received an alert with respect to Y2K. It speaks about Windows inability to roll over to the year 2000 due to a default setting in the Control Panel.

"Apparently the default setting in 'Regional Settings' under 'Date' must be set to dd/mm/yyyy with four 'yyyy's.' If this isn't adjusted I am told the computers will crash. Do you know anything about this?"

My response was:

It's bogus... you can always do a simple couple of tests...

1. Reset the date/time to December 31 1999, 11:58 p.m.

Wait a couple of minutes, then check the date and time. Did it roll over properly? If so, it should do so if the computer is left on at year's end.

2. However, many people will have their computers turned off. Reset the date/time to the real ones, then reset to some date/time next year. Any problems? Shut down and restart. Does it still give the fictitious next-year date and time?

Microsoft has posted some relatively minor Y2K patches for Win95 and Win98 on their Web site (www.
microsoft.com/y2k
). That page also discusses what you're asking about under the title "e-mail hoax."

Along with Y2K, computer viruses are a ready topic for rumours. Phil Ragusa passed on a message he'd received from a trusted colleague. She forwarded him a message she'd received and urged him to send it to everyone he knew. It warned:

"Extremely dangerous.

"This information came from Microsoft yesterday morning. Please pass it on to anyone you know who has access to the Internet. You may receive an apparently harmless Budweiser screen saver, entitled BUDDYLST.SIP. If you do, do not open it under any circumstances, but delete it immediately. Once opened, you will lose everything on your PC. Your hard disc will be completely de-
stroyed and the person who sent you the message will have access to your name and password via the Internet.

"As far as we know, the virus was circulated yesterday morning. It's a new virus, and extremely dangerous. Please copy this information and e-mail it to everyone in your address book. We need to do all we can to lock up this virus. AOL has confirmed how dangerous it is, and there is no anti-virus program yet... capable of destroying it. Please take all the necessary precautions and pass this information on to your friends, acquaintances and work colleagues."

Sounds plausible, right? Every few weeks or so, reports of a new and yuckier (the technical term) virus surfaces in the mass media. So why not this one?

I responded to Phil: Has this information been confirmed by any first-party sources (Microsoft, AOL, Symantec Antivirus Research Centre, IBM?) not just someone who heard from someone who heard from someone who claimed that it had been verified?

It's not particularly hard to check on these things. For instance, a visit to Symantec's Antivirus Centre (www.
symantec.com/avcenter/
) includes a list of alerts and hot topics. The Buddy Screen Saver isn't one of them. This isn't proof that the warning is bogus, but it's Symantec's business to be on top of these sorts of things and they're generally pretty good.

Greg and Phil are trying to do the right thing, warning others about problems that appear to have the potential to cause serious harm to computer users. When you receive a message about a virus or a dangerous software bug, take a deep breath before sending it on to everyone
in your e-mail address book.

You can help stop rumours in their tracks, however. While the Internet makes it easy for rumours to spread, it makes it just as easy for them to be verified. Try going to the source. If a rumour attributes a warning to Microsoft or AOL, go to their Web site and see if you can find the warning.

When a company such as Microsoft discovers a software bug, especially one that's easy to fix, they post the information on their Web site. Their site is filled with patches for security, Y2K and other issues.

And the fact that we hear about creatively destructive viruses in the mass media should suggest that the Microsofts and AOLs of the world will try to get information out via the media -- not by starting an Internet rumour.

In a way, rumours are just an-
other form of virus, trying to hijack your address book to spread themselves to more and more people. Rumours, however, can be more easily stopped in their tracks. If you're not sure, send 'em to me! *



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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan