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Viruses, Part 1: Beware of hoaxes

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

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Viruses, Part 1: Beware of hoaxes

Technofile for June 15, 1997

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

If you're as unlucky as I am, you get hit by an e-mailed virus hoax about once a month. And you probably don't know what to do about it.

That's been my problem. Because I write about computers and software, people I have never met put my e-mail address on chain letters that warn of viruses. Trouble is, not a single one of the dozens of letters I've received over the last two years was accurate. They all warned about dangers that didn't exist. All the viruses they mentioned were hoaxes.

I'm sure the people who send these letters on to me aren't up to any mischief. No doubt they believed the warning in big type when they saw it arrive in their own inboxes. And they probably thought they were keeping the world safe from harm.

I used to keep a list of these—the Penpal virus or the Penpal Greetings virus, the Deeyenda virus, the Irina virus, the Red Baron virus, and many more. (And these are just from the last couple of months.) All of them are hoaxes. The viruses don't exist, yet thousands or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of computer users passed warnings to each other to watch out for them.

We have enough problems dealing with real viruses. Trying to get your virtual friends and neighbors to stop participating in hoaxes seems like too much to ask. I have better things to do.

Luckily, Rob Rosenberger cares enough to take up my slack. Unlike most experts on viruses, Rosenberger does not work for any of the companies that sell anti-virus software, and he has a healthy attitude toward the scientific method. And that means you need to prove something exists before you can get Rob Rosenberger to believe it.

I've followed Rosenberger's career for nearly 10 years. I've come to trust his judgment implicitly, as have the Defense Department and dozens of other major organizations. (One of his most important studies of computer viruses has shown up in 230 books and other publications around the world.)

Rosenberger's war against virus hoaxes is waged from his Web site, He writes in a delightful thumb-in-your-eye style, and he has never been afraid to take an unpopular position. (Ever hear of the AOL4Free virus? Rosenberger points out that it's mostly a hoax, because there is a real AOL4Free virus that has struck only 24 times around the world and a non-existent one unwitting AOL members continue to warn each other about.)

Another virus-hoax debunker is the EliaShim hoax page, at EliaShim is an Israeli company that sells its own anti-virus software, but that does not seem to color its interest in tracking down hoaxes. I check the EliaShim page often. (If you look through the company's informational pages, you'll find that the executive vice president, Yael Sachs, is a Syracuse University grad.)

An excellent source of basic information on current virus hoaxes can be found at, the hoax site maintained by Data Fellows. The company makes its own anti-virus program and plugs its product throughout its other pages, but does a good job of debunking the hoaxes without a commercial slant. The Data Fellows researchers take the trouble to check the source of as many hoaxes as possible, and its reports can be fascinating.

(After writing this article, I was reminded by a Web librarian that an outstanding site on viruses and hoaxes is maintained by the Energy Department. It's one of those magic sites, full of information, devoid of slow-poke graphics and exceptionally useful.)

Of course, there are hoaxes and there are the Real McCoys. We'll take a look at what you can do to protect your PC or Mac from genuine viruses next week.

(A reader wearns about a chain-letter hoax purporting to be supported by the American Cancer Society.)

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