Virus prevention tips help stop a spreading menace 

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002
First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #657  May 28- June 3, 2002, High Tech Office column 

How would you respond if a stranger phoned you, and promised that you could make a lot of money if you would just tell him or her your bank branch and account number? How about if a stranger tried to get your attention in a parking lot promising that he had naked photos of a Russian tennis star to show you?

Most of us would ignore these sleazy propositions if they were made verbally. But when the same proposals are made in an e-mail message, many of us ignore our street smarts. This week, I got an e-mail message labelled "private" from Zainab Abacha, claiming that I can help her Nigerian family preserve US$22.5 million that they have in cash in neighbouring Benin. For my help, I can earn a 10-per-cent reward.

If I respond to this message, Abacha promises to "instruct our family attorney in London to contact and give you further instructions." (I may have disqualified myself by ignoring her request to keep her offer "highly confidential.")

Nigerian e-mail scams such as this one account for 15 per cent of all complaints of Internet fraud made to the U.S.-based National White Collar Crime Center; two unidentified complainants lost more than US$70,000 each. Recently, the Washington Post discussed a Canadian businessman duped out of $750,000.

During the same week, I averaged three to four messages a day with attachments infected with the Klez virus. They bear a variety of subject lines and contents and the attachments have a variety of file names. Some ask for help with a computer problem (just like legitimate messages I often get), others want me to look at a program they just wrote. Several are cheeky enough to warn me of virus infections, and suggest I run the attachment to clean my system! One came to me from an old friend.

Despite the barrage, my system has not been infected. I keep Symantec's Norton AntiVirus software running, letting it check my e-mail and attachments as they are received. I've set it to update its virus information on a daily basis. It has warned me about each of the Klez-bearing attachments.

Even so, don't expect a piece of software to replace your healthy paranoia. Last year, I got a dozen identical messages and attachments that NAV didn't flag as dangerous. It turned out that I was receiving infected messages before Symantec updated its virus information files. Because I didn't open the attachments, I wasn't infected. What you can do:

  • Get an antivirus program that checks incoming e-mail. Install it, and keep its information files up to date.
  • Outlook and Outlook Express users are the most targeted. Consider using a different e-mail program. (I use the free Eudora Pro.)
  • If you must use one of the Outlooks, download all of Microsoft's security patches. Add your own address to your Outlook address book, so if it starts sending out messages on its own, at least you'll know about it.
  • Stay paranoid. If your mother had known about the Internet, she would have warned you to never open attachments from strangers. Your mother would have been right
  • Be suspicious of attachments from people you know. If it's not something you were expecting, contact them and verify that they meant to send it before you open it.
  • Anything that sounds too good to be true probably is. Most of us work by this principle in the real world. It's equally true in the electronic world
  • If you get infected, know that Symantec and other antivirus makers provide free tools for removing infections.
  • Finally, consider moving away from Windows. There are virtually no viruses being written for Mac and Linux computers.

Some clever viruses have started sending out messages with return addresses stolen from the infected address books. As a result, some people have received infected attachments that claimed to be from me. It's not true. Really.  

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