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Virus hoaxes infect Net

In the lightning-fast age of mass email, virus hunters say only one thing is keeping them busier than killing infections: the spread of virus hoaxes.

When Kate got the message over the Internet warning of a deadly "Penpal" virus, she did what she thought was the right thing. She warned everyone she knew that they could be at risk.

"I sent it all over the place," she said. "I thought, 'I'm going to warn everyone I know who has email.'"

It's easy to see why. The email, dubbed "Virus Alert," made it sound as if the security of the entire Internet was at risk: It warned of a self-replicating virus that not only would destroy your computer but also would seek out and destroy data in the terminals of anyone who has ever sent you email. "If this virus remains unchecked, it has the potential to do a great deal of DAMAGE to computer networks worldwide!!!!" screamed the message making the rounds this week.

Of course, virus experts and people familiar with viruses could tell right away what they were dealing with: yet another virus hoax set off to scare unwary Netizens. Thousands, maybe millions, did just what Kate did, forwarding the email everywhere they could--newsgroups, chat rooms, email lists--with warnings like, "This is critical and valuable information. Please pass it on."

Rumors on the Net are hardly new. Two years after it was born, the so-called Good Times Virus is still making its way around the Net.

As opposed to the pre-Internet days, when a person had to pick up a telephone to pass along information, now email allows thousands of people to send a message at virtually the same moment. And it only takes another few seconds for those people to send a message on.

The result? A propaganda machine that would have exceeded the imagination of even the most inventive Cold War veteran.

"Right now we're having more trouble with hoaxes than we are with real viruses on the Web," said Joe Wells, senior editor of Antivirus Online, which maintains a page dedicated to hoaxes.

People spread hoaxes unwittingly because they're well intentioned, said Sarah Gordon, a security analyst with Command Software Systems "People think they're being helpful," Gordon said. "People spread them unintentionally."

Of course, the people who start these hoaxes have different motivations.

In Kate's case, according to the Energy Department's alert on the Penpal hoax, it may have been started by someone trying to kill an penpal chain letter by saying it was infected with a virus.

In any case, virus experts emphasize that Internet users should be aware that viruses are not transmitted through text in email--but rather, through email attachments. And they warn that Netizens should be wary and follow the rules of safe computing: download only from known sites and, even then, use a good virus-scanning program.

If you suspect you have a virus, check it out. And always keep backups.