May 2002 Issue  Volume 3  Number 3

Access Issues

Monkeys, Worms, and Other Viruses

No matter how long we've been around technology, some of us still don't follow the advice we give. Sure, we know we should back up our important files. Sure, we know to be on the lookout for viruses, often sent in e-mail attachments. Still, being merely human, we sometimes skip steps, neglect details—and get into trouble!

If you work for a large company or organization, chances are that your office computer is protected from viruses by an in-house department whose job it is to manage such things. On a home office computer, however, or personal system, the responsibility falls to you.

After learning the hard way (another story involving the Monkey B virus) about the importance of virus protection, I have my own software setup to download updates from the web on a regular basis at 2:00 a.m. every Sunday morning. This seemed to me to be a time when I could safely assume that the computer would not be in use for any other purpose. After several months of working beautifully, this routine failed for the usual reason: user error! I was out of town for three consecutive weekends, and my computer was powered off in my absence. The result was one traumatic day in mid-August.

Zipping through my e-mail messages one morning, I was pleasantly surprised by a message from a woman I knew from Ski for Light International. "Hi," she wrote. "How are you? I need your advice." That's all. It struck me as uncharacteristic of her usual chatty style, but, well, everyone is in a hurry these days.

Yes, I knew better than to open the attachment. In the interest of time and, reflecting that it was from someone to be trusted, I opened it anyway. The attachment was a brief article about a ski weekend she had attended in New England. My assumption was that she was asking me to proofread and edit it for her. So I did. I marked it up, made suggestions, and e-mailed it back to her.

I later realized that she never even knew she had sent it to me. Within the hour, I began receiving strange messages from people. One friend wanted to know why I'd sent her an invoice. Another wanted to know why I'd sent a memorandum that had nothing to do with him. Still others wrote to say what was becoming clear to me: "You have a virus!"

The SirCam Worm, as this particular virus is dubbed, sends the same message I had received "Hi, how are you? I need your advice" to randomly selected recipients in the Outlook or Outlook Express address book. As an attachment, it randomly sends anything that may be residing in the Documents folder. In my case, people received memos, articles, and even a few children's monologues based on The Velveteen Rabbit and The Ugly Duckling, scripts I had typed to coach my 12 year old in rehearsing for performances.

My opening the attachment activated the virus. Anyone receiving it from me who opened the randomly selected attachment was similarly infected. But the worm's fun did not stop there.

Once I realized that I had a virus, I ran my virus protection program. Unfortunately, the update for this particular virus had been missed in the three-week inadvertent hiatus from updates. Viruses arrive, of course, when you least expect them.

If you are not interested in a visit, here's what to do:

  1. Never open e-mail attachments from strangers. Open attachments from friends and colleagues only after they have been scanned by your antivirus program.
  2. If, as I did, you have a moment's lapse in pragmatism, opting instead for the rash foolishness of haste, and open the thing, run your virus protection program immediately.
  3. Update your virus protection program regularly. Even if your virus protection program isn't a place you customarily visit, it's well worth the additional few minutes that may be required to tab around the main screen and find the information you need.
  4. If your program is not set to update automatically, choose the Live Update option, run it, and follow the instructions.

Unfortunately, in my case, after I performed these steps, my program informed me that I should "Repair" by clicking "OK" to repair, then "quarantine" the little villain by clicking again, and then reboot. I somehow failed to quarantine properly, so that upon rebooting, my computer kept looking for "Sircam.exe" to open all its programs.

In other words, after wreaking havoc in my e-mail program, this "worm" began replacing all executable file names with its own cute little moniker.

I'm fairly savvy technically, but I knew enough to add Step 6: Stop right there. I called a local company of PC gurus, called PC On Call, and paid their exorbitant emergency rate to have someone else disinfect my system. Two hours and $300 later, my system was clean and my perspective on the need to hurry readjusted. This time, no data were lost and no programs were destroyed. My virus protection program is updated, and the updating routine is back in order.

Meanwhile, in this morning's e-mail, I received an alert about a new virus called Trojan. This little horse sends only the word "Start" to its recipients and, if the command is obeyed, the recipient is rewarded by having his or her operating system essentially destroyed. The alert claims:

By changing almost 50 registry values, the malicious program disables all programs, prevents Windows from being shut down, and makes icons on the Windows desktop disappear.

You can't be an expert on every new virus and—unless it happens to be your job—you shouldn't try to be. In the same spirit, however, that you can protect yourself from human germs by washing your hands and eating properly, so you should take the necessary precautionary steps to protect your computer. What motivates some individuals with extraordinary programing talent to waste it writing destructive programs is a question for another article. This one is simply a reminder from someone who temporarily forgot that virus protection is an essential part of making computers work for us.

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