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ISSUE 506: The high-tech office- July 7 1999


Take e-mail warnings
with a grain of salt
and a hint of caution

Most of us learned in childhood that just because we read something, it wasn't necessarily true. After never getting rich or encountering disaster as the result of a chain letter, most of us learned to be a little skeptical of what we read.

But in the newer medium of e-mail, many of us seem to turn off our skepticism. If we read it in a credible-sounding e-mail message, it must be true. Several of them have been sent my way by concerned, credible readers.

For example, one message that is currently making the rounds, claiming to originate from international telecom company GTO, warns of an electronic AIDS virus:

"There is a virus out now being sent to people via e-mail... it is called the AIDS virus. It will destroy your memory, sound card and speakers and it will infect your mouse or pointing device, as well as your keyboards (possibly motherboards) making what you type not able to register on the screen. It self-terminates only after it eats 5MB of hard drive space & will delete all programs.

"It will come via e-mail called 'Open: Very cool!' Delete it immediately!"

The message urges readers to "Please pass this on to everyone you know!"

The only problem is -- it's a hoax.

Viruses are being circulated via attachments to e-mail messages, but none can destroy your computer's memory or infect your mouse. And while attachments to messages may contain viruses, opening an e-mail message itself will not damage your computer.

This is only one of a number of e-mail chain letters warning of fictitious viruses. Others claim to originate with IBM and even the FBI -- as if either organization (or GTO, for that matter) would use chain letters to communicate with the public. These messages take advantage of the public concern with the increasing spread of computer viruses via e-mail.

The latest (at least as of this writing) is the Worm.ExploreZip virus. This one is for real. It most often arrives as an e-mail message, apparently from someone you know, reading:

"Hi Alan [or whatever your name is], I have received your e-mail and I shall send you a reply ASAP. Till then take a look at the attached zipped docs. Bye!"

Enclosed is a file attachment that is not a bunch of documents compressed as a Zip file. It's a program that destroys files across your hard drive.

Keep your paranoia-meter turned on. Were you expecting a collection of documents from this person? Is she/
he replying to a message of yours?

PC users who have file extensions turned on will notice that the so-called zipped document doesn't end with the letters "zip" as it should, but rather with the letters "exe" for a so-called executable file, a program that will run by itself.

For your own safety, don't open files attached to e-mail messages unless you're expecting them. And even then, check them with an up-to-date virus scanner first. (Some polls suggest only about 30 per cent of business computers have antivirus software -- and even that provides, at best, a false sense of security if it isn't regularly updated!)

As BIV publisher Peter Ladner relayed in a recent column, I too was forwarded an e-mail message, apparently from one Kate Turner, assistant to Richard Stepp QC, from the law firm Berger, Stepp and Gorman, Barristers at Law, 216 Bay Street, Toronto, ON, MlL 3C6.

It warned of "an alarming trend in the Government of Canada attempting to quietly push through legislation that will affect your use of the Internet... Bill 602P will permit the federal government to charge a five-cent surcharge on every e-mail delivered, by billing Internet Service Providers at source."

Lawyer Stepp, it claimed, is working to oppose Bill 602P, along with a proposal by Liberal back-bencher Tony Schnell (NB) who "has suggested a "20 to 40 dollar per month surcharge on all Internet service" above and beyond the government's proposed e-mail charges."

The message ended by asking readers, "Don't sit by and watch your freedoms erode away! Send this e-mail to all Canadians on your list and tell your friends and relatives to write to their MP and say 'No!' to Bill 602P."

All well and good. Except there is no MP Tony Schell from New Brunswick and no Commons Bill 602P (Parliament doesn't number bills that way). And despite the realistic-sounding name and address, there's no Bay Street law-firm of Berger, Stepp and Gorman, with an assistant named Kate Turner.

This hoax is now making the rounds in the U.S., with the particulars changed to U.S.-sounding ones, but it makes me proud to think that we saw it first in Canada.

Whether it's a relatively benign hoax such as the Bill 602P message or a message containing a destructive attachment like the Worm.ExploreZip virus, we should all use the same common sense that we learned as children -- just because something's written down doesn't mean it's true, even if it's passed on to you in a message from someone you know.

And especially if it comes to you as an e-mail message. *

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