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Word 97 antivirus needs booster

The antivirus protection built into Microsoft Word 97 is a good start but not enough to deter all potential infections.

The antivirus protection built into the newly released Microsoft Word 97 is not enough to deter all potential infections, Microsoft (MSFT) said today.

As a result, third-party software vendors including IBM, Symantec, and McAfee are jumping in to fill the gap. But until they do, Word 97 users will have to be vigilant about keeping viruses out.

Microsoft Word 97, part of the new Office 97 application suite, will scan for and destroy well-known macro viruses. One example is the "concept" virus which forces users to save all documents as templates.

Although Word 97 can't destroy all viruses, it does at least warn users when a document contains "macros"--easy-to-write scripts that automate functions, such as inserting a letter head, within a document. This is important as virus authors often insert their work into Word macros, which travel with a Word document as it is passed from user to user via floppy disk or as an email attachment. When opened, the virus will infect a user's main document template.

Once warned, users can opt to open the document with all macros disabled. This gives users the opportunity to prevent any potential virus from entering their system.

The same functionality applies to Word 95a, according to information on the company's Web site.

"As a software company, there's no way for us to know which is a good macro and which is a bad macro," said Kim Akers, Word product manager. "A lot of it is up to the user. When they get documents from an unknown source, users need to assume there shouldn't be macros in it."

Microsoft said it would provide more substantial protection sometime this year but wouldn't give a date.

Third-party antivirus software companies are reacting quickly, however. McAfee will post a beta upgrade to its Virus Scan product in the next two weeks that specifically addresses Office 97, said senior software engineer Jivko Koltchev. Koltchev said he has already identified several macro viruses that Word 97 doesn't automatically delete.

IBM will also release version 2.5.2 of its antivirus utility next month.

Users of Norton Anti Virus utilities from Symantec will get Word 97-specific antivirus updates from Symantec's Web site starting March 1, with protection against Excel 97 and PowerPoint 97 macro viruses to follow. Of 210 known macro viruses, 205 are Word viruses and 5 are Excel viruses, said Alex Haddox, product manager of the Symantec Antivirus Research Center.

Until the third parties release their solutions, however, users will have to heed Word 97's warnings and keep their eyes peeled for suspicious macros.

One expert's advice: Don't turn off the dialog-box warning that a macro exists. And if you do see it flash, make sure to disable the macro if you don't know its origin, said Dave Chess, a virus expert at IBM's Watson Research Center.

In corporations, where shared documents are highly automated with macros, such steps might not be feasible, Chess said. In that case, there's not much else to do until help arrives.