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    Viruses topped computer industry concerns in 2004

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Business in Vancouver December 21-27, 2004; issue 791; High Tech Office column

    Despite everything, including nags from this columnist, computer security remains a concern at the end of 2004. Some apparent steps forward, but also some steps sideways or even back. This week's column looks at e-mail-related issues.

    •   Computer viruses:

    You'd think we would be done with computer viruses by now; the basic concept is such a clichÈ, and users have all heard about the problem. But anti-virus software companies claimed a 500- per-cent increase in the number of viruses being released "into the wild" in 2004 compared with the previous year.

    On the other hand, no single infestation infected the mass numbers of computers that we've seen several times in the past.

    I suspect end-users continue to be sloppy about installing anti-virus software and keeping it up to date, but corporate networks and commercial Internet service providers are taking their responsibilities more seriously and doing a better job of keeping infection-bearing e-mails from their users.

    A twist on virus infections emerged this year, a sort of for-profit alliance between virus writers and spammers.

    Some of this year's crop of viruses turn infected computers into spam "zombies," using the infected PCs not just to spread the virus further, but also to relay junk mail to other users.

    Many users continue to get hosts of e-mails claiming that their computer may be sending out virus-laden messages. While these are sent out with the best of intentions, network administrators and ISPs are messing up here; in most cases, the viruses "spoof" real e-mail addresses. If you get such a message, check over your system but don't panic: you're probably not actually infected.

    "ree home-user anti-virus software such as Avast ( is worth checking if you're not currently running up-to-date anti-virus software.


    Late in 2003, the U.S. Congress passed CAN-SPAM legislation. There have been a few instances of charges being laid against alleged mass e-mailers, but if you've seen a decrease in the junk coming into your inbox, it's more likely due to wider use of spam filtering. This filtering is built into new versions of popular e-mail software such as Microsoft's Outlook, Apple's Mail, Qualcomm Eudora (paid version only), and the open source Mozilla Thunderbird. (Microsoft's Outlook Express, however, doesn't do any spam filtering).

    Even more effective is filtering at the network level, carried out both by enterprise network administrators and by increasing the numbers of Internet service providers.

    Spammers are trying to outwit the filters, sending out messages with randomly generated text (to foil anti-spam pattern recognition software), with the real message embedded in an image. Despite this, only a fraction of the junk aimed my way reaches my in-box.

    •   Phishing:

    Perhaps the fastest-growing danger in 2004 was in so-called phishing e-mails - messages that appear to be from a legitimate source such as a retailer or financial institution and attempt to get the reader to visit a website (also appearing to belong to the same legitimate organization) and enter account numbers, passwords and Personal Information Numbers.

    In January 2004, 176 different phishing attacks were reported to the Anti-Phishing Working Group. By June, that number had jumped to 1,422 unique attacks.

    While home and enterprise-class spam filters are learning to identify such fraudulent messages, end-users need to hear the message to ignore such messages. Legitimate businesses and financial institutions are not going to e-mail you asking you to verify account numbers or passwords.

    If you get such a request, ignore it; if you're not sure, confirm it by contacting the business directly (not through the website listed in the suspicious e-mail).

    In 2004, computer viruses only attacked Microsoft Windows users.

    Spam and phishing messages made no such distinctions. All these hazards and irritations come into your e-mail inbox. Other sorts of security hazards next week.

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