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Virus hoaxes and other chain letters

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WebWatch is the cooperative effort of two of Phnom Penh's most experienced

Internet users:
David Lewis of Telstra's Bigpond and Bill Herod, information technology

consultant at the NGO Forum on Cambodia. Contact through: PhnomPenhPost@bigpond.com.kh

EXPERIENCED e-mail users tend to disregard and delete the fake virus warnings, breathless

chain letters ("send this to everyone you know") and other junk mail littering

our inboxes every day.

There are, however, real viruses out there and sometimes we get mail not only warning

us about genuine threats (eg the recent "love bug" and many others), but

also giving us useful information about how to help colleagues who may have been

lured into opening a destructive file.

How do you know if a message is worthy of your attention and, perhaps, the attention

of others (even, though far less likely, "everyone you know").

The fake virus warnings generally follow a well-worn formula. The "virus"

is usually said to have been announced "yesterday" by Microsoft (or some

other major company) "but not many people know about it yet".

Well, why would that be? Major corporations are not in the habit of relying on chain

e-mail letters in order to make urgent public announcements.

For the latest information on viruses and virus hoaxes, check with one of the websites

specializing in anti-virus software (you don't have to be a subscriber to get information).

Among the most reputable are McAfee, Symantec (the maker of Norton Anti-Virus products)

and Trend (maker of PC-Cillin).

A variant of the fake virus warning is the pyramid scheme, whereby the recipient

is promised a reward if the message is forwarded to a given number of others.

We recently saw such a message being sent around Phnom Penh promising that a mobile

phone manufacturer would reward each recipient with a new web-capable hand phone

if the message was forwarded to 20 others within 24 hours.

The manufacturer, of course, had nothing to do with the hoax, nor any intention of

providing free phones to the 200 million people who would receive this offer in a

week if even only half the recipients followed the instructions.

Another type of chain letter is the "feel good" message. Usually, the letters

refer to some anonymous child dying of leukemia or awaiting a kidney transplant whose

"dying wish" is to receive a million e-mails or whatever.

You are invited to send the message on to "everyone you know" and to send

a greeting to the "child" at one address.

Imagine what happens to the owner of that address as their inbox is flooded with

"get well" wishes from all over the world for months.

There are, of course, chain letters sent out in support of legitimate and deserving

causes.

Usually, however, if the cause is deserving of your attention, it will benefit from

a little research. For example, if the letter is essentially a petition, you might

want to go to the Internet and find out more about the issue (environmental or human

rights cases, for example, will be documented by reputable organizations with suggestions

for how to become involved).

Simply sending on an e-mail chain letter might make you feel better, but is unlikely

to have much positive impact.

Though fake virus warnings can be a waste of time and resources, they are at least

harmless. Real viruses on the other hand seem to be becoming more and more common

with the rapid growth in popularity of the Internet and email. Recent stories in

the international press suggest that tens of billions of US dollars were lost due

to the recent Love Bug virus.

Protection from such attacks is surprisingly simple. There are two rules all Internet

users should follow:

1) Have up-to-date virus protection software running on your PC at all times.

2) Don't open attachments unless you know exactly what's inside.

The summary below provides a guide to dealing with different

file types:

Word documents:

  • .doc

open only if macros are disabled.
Spreadsheets:

  • .xls

open only if macro's are disabled
Graphics files:

  • .gif l

ow risk

  • .jpg

low risk

  • .png

low risk
Executables:

  • .exe

Don't open it
Scripts:

  • .vbs

Don't open it

  • .bat

Don't open it
Anything else:

  • .???

Don't open it

To disable macros in Microsoft Word 97 and MS Excel 97, go to:

Tools->Options->General

and check the option "macro virus protection". For other versions of Word

see the help files.

Virus protection software can be obtained from many computer suppliers around town,

but it is important to register the software and download updates frequently (at

least once a month) over the Internet.

If you suspect that you already have a virus on your system, you may be able to clean

it by installing a new virus protection program or by updating the existing one.

While the most common virus threat to Internet users continues to be from files attached

to email, some viruses can enter your system through the HTML code used in web pages

and some email messages.

To minimize risk from these viruses, make sure your browser's security settings are

set to the defaults or higher.

Virus Protection Web Sites

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