Tech Tips: Hoax or Virus?

Dan Comden

Email-based viruses have been big news lately. The propagation of these nefarious organisms has been well covered in mainstream media. Most big name viruses spread through activation of scripts in Outlook™ and Outlook Express™ — e-mail programs made by Microsoft. Many cause little damage to individual computers, but, because they reproduce quickly by sending mail to all addresses in the victim's address book, they can cause networks to overload to the point of being shut down. Others can be quite destructive - not only spreading quickly but deleting files as well. These types of viruses are initiated by opening an attached infected file that most often has a .vbs extension in its file name.

I should point out that e-mail viruses rarely affect those using Macintosh or Linux operating systems. It's not that these platforms are more resistant to the nasty bugs — they can be just as susceptible. Because the Windows platform is so popular, more viruses are written for this larger target.

Another category of e-mail virus is the hoax. This virus is propagated by people. Hoaxes can be false or incorrect warnings about viruses, or fake announcements of prizes or special programs. The key element of these hoaxes is that they contain an instruction for the recipient to send e-mail to "everyone you know" or a variant of that phrase. These viruses usually don't cause damage but a recent version instructs the recipient to delete a particular file found in the Windows operating system — a file that is needed. Regardless, you should not forward hoaxes. Though they rarely cause harm, the amount of time used by recipients to verify information is wasteful.

How do you protect yourself from hoaxes and other viruses? Your most important first line of defense is your brain. Use common sense in opening attachments and forwarding possible hoaxes. If you receive an attachment in e-mail, don't open it unless you are expecting it. It's a good idea to check with the sender before opening it to make sure they intended to send you the file. If it's not from someone you know you should not open the file. Valid virus warnings will not have the phrase "forward this to everyone you know" in the text of the message.

The next most important tool is good anti-virus software. Make sure it is installed and active when you start your computer and update it frequently. Many anti-virus programs can be set to automatically update virus definitions — once a week or even daily is a good time frame for this. The University of Washington uses ViruScan™ from Network Associates.

If you receive an announcement of a virus, or an offer that seems too good to be true, you should check first and verify the accuracy of the information. Good up-to-date information can be found at and [Editor's note: resource is no longer available.]

Practice safe computing and you should have few problems with hoaxes and other viruses.