Services & Software

"NewLove" warnings spread faster than virus itself

Computer viruses exploiting email have rapidly spread across the globe in the past, but this time the warnings got there first.

Computer viruses exploiting email have rapidly spread across the globe in the past, but this time the warnings got there first.

When news of a nasty email virus broke last night, the media bombarded Americans with updates. The so-called NewLove virus, which sneaks around traditional virus scanners, made the front page of USA Today and numerous regional newspapers.

see CNET Software: Protect yourself from a virus attack It was fodder for late-night TV news anchors and morning talk-radio hosts from Detroit to San Francisco. In Silicon Valley, radio stations broadcast the virus alert like a hurricane warning in the Carolinas.

Potential victims received a second wave of alerts when they arrived at work this morning. From cutting-edge software companies and investment banks to "old economy" manufacturing firms, corporate information technologists crushed NewLove with gusto.

"Our people pulled up the drawbridges pretty quick," said Toyota spokesman Mike Michels. "We came in today and got an email warning that the IT folks had quarantined all incoming and outgoing messages."

Despite its pernicious potential, NewLove hasn't been catastrophic. Vincent Weafer, director of Symantec's antivirus research center, said this morning that "less than a dozen" corporations in Israel, Europe and the United States have reported infections to Symantec.

Academics attribute the scant damage to the widening computer literacy of corporate America and Internet users worldwide. Virus news has been upgraded from esoteric technology bulletins and grist for geeky gossip to mainstream headlines--testimony to how pervasive email and the Internet has become, said Bryan Pfaffenberger, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia.

"There's a great deal more awareness of the risk," Phaffenberger said today.

Another reason the new virus remains in check: Analysts say it was simply released at the wrong time of day to cause the kind of damage seen in those earlier outbreaks.

"Essentially these viruses have six to eight hours to propagate explosively before antivirus firms and the news catch up," said Chris LeTocq, research director at the Gartner Group. "I think with this one, the virus and the news arrived at the same time."

The NewLove virus spreads much like predecessors "I Love You" and "Melissa." Left unchecked, it sends itself to all the email addresses found inside an infected computer's Outlook mail program address book.

The viruses turn destructive after people open a related attachment, erasing files on the machine's hard drive. The Melissa virus last spring cost worldwide businesses an estimated $80 million, and the two-week-old Love virus has cost several billion dollars so far.

Employees of San Francisco-based investment bank WR Hambrecht received an early morning email with "Virus alert!!!" in the subject line. Triple exclamation marks--the Internet equivalent of a deafening scream--underscored the company's urgent desire to extinguish new love.

"Please DO NOT OPEN any attachment in an email message that has a .VBS extension," a systems engineer wrote to all employees. "Most of the time the messages have 'FW:' at the beginning of the subject line, but the subject itself can change every time. Please be careful, don't open an attachment from anybody if it looks strange, this is a highly destructive virus."

Along with simply warning employees not to open suspicious attachments in email, some companies have taken more extensive technological safeguards. One San Francisco Internet company, which asked not to be named, installed filters after the I Love You outbreak that stripped out the type of attachments used by that virus and today's NewLove, for example.

Microsoft plans to release a patch for Outlook email systems next week that could help companies prepare even further. The software will block any attachments of the type used by I Love You or NewLove from running and will tell computer users when any program is trying to access their email address books.

Another patch, which is already available, requires email recipients to download any attachments to their hard drives before opening them, giving antivirus software an extra chance to catch any viruses.

At DaimlerChrysler's North American headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., employees received notice of the virus in today's news bulletin, which is typically picked up at the cafeteria. Spokesman Jeff Leestma said the virus hadn't touched a single DaimlerChrysler computer so far today.

"I heard about it on the radio when I was driving in," Leestma said. "Then it was one of the items on today's news summary. This information moves awfully fast."