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Keep That Computer Clean, Man!

What to look for

Most malevolent software won’t infect your machine unless you open an e-mail attachment. So virus distributors use various tricks, which experts call “social engineering,” to con you into clicking. A common way to draw you in is to have the e-mail come from a family member or friend.

These illustrations show other basic types of tricks that have been used by well-known viruses and worms. Antidotes were developed for all of them. If you receive messages like these, delete them and run a virus check before doing anything else with the computer.

THE INFECTED DOCUMENT

tidHere, the subject line includes the name of the sender, probably someone you know. The message itself tempts you to open the attached Microsoft Word document (“don’t show to anyone else”). The attachment is a legitimate Word file–but infected with a macro, an invisible, embedded program that runs when Word opens the document.

THE MISLEADING FILE NAME

If you aren’t familiar with the way Windows names files, you can easily mistake the attachment’s name, “LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.TXT.vbs,” for that of a harmless text file. In fact, the file’s “vbs” suffix is the real one, which identifies it as a type of program known as a Windows script–a rudimentary computer program that an intruder writes to run on your Windows operating system. The suffix may be hidden entirely on your computer, thus appearing to be a type of file you’d willingly open, such as a JPEG image, MP3 music, or PDF document.

THE OFFER YOU CAN’T REFUSE

This example relies on a message so compelling–an offer to rid your computer of a virus–that it doesn’t need to disguise the fact that the attachment is a program. Unfortunately, the program is a worm that sends itself to e-mail addresses it finds on your computer.

THE FAKE WEB LINK

This example uses several tricks. The subject and message suggest that opening the attachment will take you to a web page containing party photos. The attachment’s name resembles a web address, but there’s no web site involved. This is actually a program that sends itself to your friends and colleagues. This particular intrusion was designed to tie up your e-mail; it could easily have been designed to destroy data.

Computer hygiene 101

Regular backups of important data, plus use of antivirus software and a firewall, are the most important ways to protect your computer’s contents. You can also make yourself less of a target by using applications that aren’t as widely adopted as Microsoft products–Eudora e-mail, say, or WordPerfect word processing. The following measures also help ensure that important information or programs on your computer won’t easily be damaged or stolen.

ESSENTIAL STEPS

* Regularly update your operating system, web browser, and other key software, using the manufacturers’ update features or web downloads.

* With a DSL or cable connection, staying online increases exposure. When you aren’t using the computer, shut it off or unplug the cable or phone line.

* Don’t open an e-mail attachment, even from someone you know well, unless you know what it contains.

* To foil password-cracking software, make sure your passwords are at least eight characters long and include at least one numeral and a symbol, such as “#.” Avoid common words, and never disclose a password to anyone online. Avoid using the same password for, say, an online discussion group and a critical task, like online banking.

* Run programs such as America Online’s Instant Messenger only when needed. Be very careful with the file-transfer feature; a firewall won’t block files sent to you this way because they piggyback on the file-transfer application itself, so you’re creating an entree for a virus.

* Don’t forward any e-mail warning about a new virus. As many of our survey respondents learned, it may be a hoax or outdated. Check for hoaxes at www.vmyths.com. The four companies whose antivirus software we rated offer an e-mail virus-alert service.

IF YOU’VE BEEN ATTACKED BY A VIRUS

What to do first. Unplug the phone or cable jack from the computer. Before anything else, scan your whole computer using fully updated antivirus software. If you don’t have it, buy it and install it to try to eliminate the virus before you do anything else with your computer. On the other hand, if you choose to stay online, do a free scan via the web at http://security.norton.com.You can also download a free trial version of antivirus software at www.mcafee.com/eval.

What NOT to do. Don’t delete files, even infected ones. Viruses can infect files your computer needs, which can often be disinfected by antivirus software. Don’t reformat your hard drive or run your e-mail program until you have run an antivirus scan. If antivirus software doesn’t fix the problem, contact the antivirus manufacturer.

IF YOU’VE BEEN HACKED

What to do. Immediately disconnect the phone or cable jack from the computer. Run a complete virus scan on your computer to remove software such as a Trojan Horse, which hackers may have planted. A free trial version of a Trojan-cleaning utility is at www.moosoft.com.If you don’t already have a firewall, install one. Before reconnecting to the Internet, try to find out why your computer was vulnerable.

WHOM TO CALL FOR HELP

The intruder’s Internet provider. If your firewall provides the intruder’s numeric Internet (IP) address, look up his Internet provider (via Network Lookup at www.network-tools.com) and e-mail documentation of the incident–copied from your firewall’s “log file” to the provider’s “abuse” mailbox, for example abuse@rr.com.

The authorities. Except in large cities, the chances are your local police won’t be able to help. A number of state police departments or attorneys general have a computer crime unit. You can also report serious incidents to the FBI (www1.ifccfbi.gov)or the Internet’s emergency response team, CERT (e-mail: cert@cert.org),but don’t expect much help.

What NOT to do. Don’t try to track down hackers or get even with them. You’ll merely disclose your presence and Internet address, inviting further intrusions.

I Love You: Profile Of A Killer Virus

The feeling definitely wasn’t mutual for corporate users on the receiving end of last week’s “ILoveYou” e-mail virus. IT managers at scores of companies spent the end of last week trying to repair the damage, while employees had to bide their time until their e-mail and other systems were restored after the fast-moving virus hit.

pkvAfter the initial wave, as many as five new strains of the virus began showing up Friday morning, including one labeled “fwd: Joke” and another, more destructive one labeled “Mother’s Day Order Confirmation.”

These, as well as many more versions expected in the coming days, are likely to keep corporations and computer users around the world on high alert for some time.

“It killed us; it absolutely destroyed us,” said Carl Ashkin, CEO of Darby Group Cos. Inc., a health care company in Westbury, N.Y., that had to shut down its e-mail server for an entire day.

Darby Group, which has 2,500 employees, lost data in shared files, artwork, logos and other materials, forcing its technical services team to work through the weekend. The company had to lock out its 300 outside salespeople to prevent the infection from spreading and undertook the costly process of having each laptop sent by overnight express to be checked out.

“This one was just particularly nasty. It hit us bad,” said Ashkin, an eWeek Corporate Partner. “We had 10,000 instances before we were able to get ahold of it.”

The virus, which contained the heading “I LoveYou” with an attachment titled “LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.TXT.vbs,” hit more than 100,000 systems in its first hours, beginning in Asia and Europe and spreading west, according to security company F-Secure Corp., of Espoo, Finland. It primarily affected users of Microsoft Corp.‘s Outlook e-mail program, Windows 98 and Windows 2000, and in some cases, Windows 95 and Windows NT 4.0 when Version 5.0 of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer is installed.

“This is an indication of a scary world for the future,” said Peter Kastner, chief research officer and CIO for Aberdeen Group, a Boston- based consultancy that had to shut down its e-mail server for hours. A few early risers opened the attachment, spamming their co-workers and anyone else in their address books.

The virus propagates a worm that replicates to everyone in an infected user’s address book, wiping out sound and graphics files such as MP3 and JPEG files. Many users also had to reset their browser’s home page. Reminiscent of last year’s infamous Melissa virus, this latest strain, in terms of volume and damage, was much worse.

Tanya Candia, F-Secure’s vice president of worldwide marketing, said the company got its first reports around 9 a.m. from Norway. Four hours later, F-Secure had reports from 20 countries. Text of the message included the line “I hate to go to school” with the author identified as “spyder” and a Manila copyright tag. “It seems to be an order of magnitude vastly more disruptive than Melissa,” Candia said. “In the first hours, we had two or three times [more than] the reports of incidents with Melissa. Melissa spread itself to the first 50 names in an address book. This one doesn’t stop at all.”

The Mother’s Day virus includes a graph of text that states the recipient’s credit card has been charged for the amount of $326.92 for a Mother’s Day diamond special. The e-mail urges the recipient to examine the attached invoice carefully and save it. Once the fictional invoice is opened, the virus is in motion again.

Richard Jacobs, president of Sophos Inc., an anti-virus software maker in Wakefield, Mass., said this strain is likely to dupe more people because of the timing, with Mother’s Day coming up May 14, and because a bill is involved. The Mother’s Day virus is even nastier, Jacobs said, because instead of overriding JPEG files, it overrides and deletes BAT and INI files, which can cause more damage and prevent systems from booting up.

“This one could be more difficult to clean up,” Jacobs said. He added that more strains are expected, because anyone who receives a virus also receives the source code for it, making it very easy for someone to go in, intentionally change a few words and launch a new strain.

Firewalls Make Things Better

If you have a high-speed Internet connection that’s always on, your home computer may be probed by a hacker at any hour of any day. These hackers are seeking an entree they can use to hide software that would allow the computer to be “zombied,” or controlled remotely.

And everyone who uses the Internet, even with a dial-up connection, may catch a computer virus.

fmtb“Probably every machine on the Internet is touched multiple times a day by one type of a scan or another,” says Jeff Carpenter, a manager with the Computer Emergency Response Team, a federally funded research center at Carnegie-Mellon University that responds to attacks on the Internet.

Once the computer has been hacked–and chances are good that you wouldn’t know until it was too late–the hacker could extract enough personal information to impersonate you or steal important financial data.

What’s more, your computer could then be commandeered to help cripple major web sites, not to mention banks, brokerages, or other businesses via denial-of-services attacks. (You aren’t likely to be accused of wrongdoing if that happens, however.) Such attacks shut down major web sites including eBay and Yahoo! two years ago. “We’ve seen in several large incidents tens of thousands of home machines compromised in a very short period of time,” says Carpenter.

James Lewis, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C., said in an interview: “A cyber attack isn’t going to stop the U.S. military from being able to protect the United States from a military attack. But it could do a lot of economic damage, and that’s where we need to worry.” A recent business survey found that 90 percent of large corporations and government agencies detected a computer security attack.

An official at a consortium of electric utilities says that computers controlling the nation’s electric-power system have already been probed in recent months by computers in the Middle East.

Hackers can so freely roam the Internet because it wasn’t designed for the kind of use it now gets. The Internet itself lacks effective technological, legal, and human resources to stop these incursions.

Hackers aren’t the only peril to your computer. Viruses–the malicious software planted for the express purpose of causing disruption or damage–have most likely turned up in a majority of home computers in the U.S. When we surveyed nearly 8,000 subscribers to Consumer Reports.org, our web site, 58 percent said they had found at least one virus on their home computer in the past two years. And 10 percent said the virus had caused some kind of damage.

Your computer and all the sensitive personal data stored on it do not have to be so vulnerable. Properly armored, your computer can become an important line of defense against cyberspace invaders. Readily available software can effectively block most hackers and viruses. In our survey, only 7 percent of those using antivirus software suffered computer damage in an invasion. By contrast, 30 percent of those without antivirus software had their computer damaged.

This report explains how prevalent and damaging viruses are. It draws on our survey and interviews with dozens of computer-security experts nationally. We also conducted our first tests of widely used antivirus software and of antihacker products known as firewalls. The box on page 18 offers advice on how to recognize incursions and protect your computer.

FIREWALLS HOLDING OFF HACKERS

The first time a hacker took over Raleigh Burns’ home computer, the machine seemed to take on a life of its own. “You expect to see your screen saver, but instead the cursor is flying around and boxes pop up with things being typed in there,” said Burns, a computer-security administrator for a Cincinnati hospital. “The only thing that’s missing are the keys going down and the mouse moving by itself on the desktop.”

But it wasn’t until months later, when another hacker began downloading Burns’ personal financial records, that he finally installed a firewall.

Like Burns, at least 10 million Americans use a high-speed Internet connection.How many of them protect themselves with a firewall? Only about 60 percent, if the ConsumerReports. org subscribers we surveyed are typical of the overall online population. That would leave about 4 million computers vulnerable. Only a tiny fraction of our survey respondents said that they knew hackers had actually broken into their computer. However, many people never know they have been hacked.

Since Sept. 11, government and industry have been trying to tighten computer security. But recent developments appear to do little to identify and shut down hackers. An antiterrorism law enacted last fall stiffened some penalties for hacking, but those provisions may apply only to attacks on government, military, or commercial computers, not on private home computers.

A government-industry program, the National Cyber Security Alliance, recently launched a campaign and web site (www.staysafeonline.info) to educate consumers about computer security.

Earlier this year, Microsoft, whose software has suffered an embarrassing series of security flaws, launched an initiative to find and fix vulnerabilities in existing software and to make security a higher priority for new software.

You can help forestall digital disaster by installing a firewall, software or hardware designed to block intruders, on any home computer that has a high-speed connection. A computer with a slower dial-up connection through a 56K modem is much less vulnerable to attack because of the different way in which it is identified on the Internet.

With a dial-up connection, your computer has a dynamic Internet provider address–the string of numbers that identifies your machine and that changes every time you log on. You’re harder to follow over time. By contrast, a high-speed connection typically has a fixed IP address or one that changes only occasionally. Since it rarely changes, hackers can readily track the computer for an extended period. A firewall makes your computer less visible on the Internet and helps ensure that any hacker who does find your computer won’t be able to get into its programs and files.

PROTECTING HIGH-SPEED CONNECTIONS

There are three ways to equip your computer with a firewall:

* With Windows XP, activate its built-in firewall via the Control Panel Network.

* Buy a separate software firewall, an application that runs in the background to keep watch over your computer at all times.

* Interpose a hardware firewall between your computer and the Internet. These devices contain firewall software that operates pretty much the way a basic software product does.

We tested XP’s own firewall, five software products, and one hardware firewall that’s included in a router, a device used to connect several home computers to a single high-speed Internet connection.

We tested the vulnerability of those products with both incoming and outgoing communications. For incoming attacks, we poked and probed the computer over the Internet just as a hacker would. For outgoing communications, we checked the software’s ability to filter things like instant messages. That’s important because instant-messaging applications and other types of file-sharing programs can be used to infect your computer with a type of software called a Trojan Horse, which performs outgoing communications. A firewall that only handles incoming threats offers no protection here.

We also looked at other useful features, such as the ability to alert you when an intruder attempts to break in and the ability to trace an intruder’s address.

Incoming threats. Six of the seven products we tested provided excellent protection. They put a computer in “stealth mode,” making it virtually undetectable and closing the software gateways technically known as “ports” (not to be confused with the ports for universal serial bus or serial cables). Either weakness can be exploited by a savvy hacker. The seventh, though still very good, wasn’t quite as effective.

Outgoing protection. Most proved effective in this regard. But Windows XP, BlackIce Defender, and the Linksys Etherfast Router offered no outgoing protection. (As we went to press, the maker of BlackIce said it was releasing a successor, version 3.5, with outgoing protection.) If you use antivirus software and practice good computer hygiene, outgoing protection isn’t essential. But if you or the kids use the computer for instant messaging and other kinds of online file-sharing, make sure the computer has outgoing protection.

RECOMMENDATIONS

All of the products provide very good incoming protection. But your first choice should be ZoneAlarm Pro 3.0 or Norton Personal Firewall 2002, each $50. They provide maximum protection and an extra margin of safety with outgoing protection. If your computer uses Windows XP, be sure to activate its built-in firewall.

Choosing Antivirus Programs

cavpWhen choosing an antivirus program, it’s important the program can detect and eliminate all types of viruses, even new ones that have just been created. The protection system must be able to quarantine the virus so it doesn’t spread. Most antivirus software manufacturers request that people send viruses-once quarantined with the antivirus program–to their research center, for purposes of learning more about the virus and recording the virus definition. “When Symantec receives an infected file from someone,” explains Garcia, “we are able to clean the file and return it to the user virus free. We then keep the virus for research purposes.”

Garcia advises that when choosing an antivirus protection program, users look for some important functions. The program should be approved and certified by the International Computer Security Association (ICSA). The ICSA certifies antivirus programs as comprehensive and effective. Additionally, and most importantly, the program must have a “live update” function. “Every day new viruses are created,” says Garcia. “With live update, you are able to ensure your protection includes the latest shield against new viruses. Software is updated via the Internet, keeping your program completely revised.”

Garcia also notes it’s a good idea to be aware of how viruses can attack, making sure not to execute commands which can trigger a virus. “Never open an e-mail attachment from someone you do not know. That’s not to say viruses only come from strangers, but it is just a safe practice to always delete e-mail if you do not recognize the source.”

The following programs are some of the most recognized on the market.

Norton AntiVirus

Symantec manufactures Norton Antivirus 2000, a protection against viruses and other malicious codes at all possible virus entry points, including e-mail attachments and Internet downloads, as well as disk drives and networks. Norton Antivirus 2000 not only automatically scans incoming email attachments, but also eliminates viruses in multiple compressed file levels. LiveAdvisor personalized support services are delivered directly via the Internet.

Norton Antivirus 2000 includes support from the Symantec AntiVirus Research Center (SARC). With offices in the United States, Japan, Australia, and the Netherlands, the center’s mission is to provide global responses to computer virus threats; to research, develop, and deliver technologies that eliminate such threats; and to educate the public on safe computing practices. As new computer viruses appear, SARC develops identification and detection for the viruses and provides either a repair or delete operation, keeping users protected against the latest threats. For added protection, SARC’s The Seeker Project, a research and development project focused on virus search, retrieval, and analysis, searches the Internet and retrieves viruses before users of Norton AntiVirus come into contact with them. A two-pronged approach targets all known virus transmission sites where virus writers post their creations and trade tools and ideas with others, and randomly searches the Internet for viruses in general distributio n. For additional information, visit Symantec’s Website at www.symantec.com.

Microsoft Security Essentials

The Trojan horse is also a dangerous form of virus. A recent example of a Trojan horse attack would be the Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks early this year, which shut down leading e-commerce sites, including eBay, Amazon, and Yahoo. According to an FBI investigation into the attack, hackers initiated the assault by implanting DDOS vandals in unprotected computers and then sending a trigger signal to the machines to launch a simultaneous attack using hundreds of third-party systems all over the world.

To execute the attacks, hackers planted many copies of a Trojan virus on multiple machines either by hacking into the machines and planting the Trojans manually or by sending the Trojans to people via e-mail and tricking them into executing the virus. When executed, the Trojan embedded itself in the system and hibernated until the hacker began the attack.

“In light of the recent DDOS vandals that hijacked the computers of innocent users and used them to launch an attack on several high-profile Internet sites, we are offering our Microsoft Security Essentials product free of charge to home users,” says Shimon Gruper, of Microsoft. “We offer preemptive digital asset protection. It snares malicious vandals before they can cause irreparable damage or access confidential information on a user’s machine.”

eSafe features Sandbox II, a new version of Aladdin’s proactive virus and vandal quarantine technology that constantly monitors a computer for hostile activity; ready to intervene the moment a malicious code is identified. eSafe traps and quarantines the vandal, alerting users to the invader before any critical information can be assaulted or system resources hijacked.

eSafe Desktop 2.2 also contains new protection features for the personal firewall module that provides increased protection against Internet vandals such as Trojan horses, back doors, hacker tools, and other viruses. For more information on eSafe, check out Aladdin’s Website at www.aks.com.

McAfee for Windows 2000

Through its consumer Website at www.mcafee.com, McAfee offers PC security and management within several areas for all Windows 2000 applications. The McAfee Clinic is a suite of hosted application services providing consumers with critical PC security and virus protection. Programs include VirusScan, First Aid, and VirusScan Online among others. The McAfee Antivirus Center is a comprehensive virus information center that includes viruses’ characteristics, updates of VirusScan, and a virus calendar.

VirusScan Online provides a Web-based online antivirus service that provides protection without the installation and administrative overhead. An online antivirus scanning service allows users to scan their PC or server over the Internet in real-time using a Web browser. The scan service allows users to scan systems for viruses and clean or delete detected infected files. The ActiveShield, a component of VirusScan Online, is a downloadable, PC-resident service that provides continuous, real-time antivirus protection at the system level, automatically updating itself whenever the user logs onto the Internet. A rescue disk is available for users to create an emergency reboot disk that allows them to restart their computer if the system becomes infected with a virus and cannot boot up in a normal sequence.

Additionally, the McAfee PC Checkup Center, an online resource, provides consumers with information and services to assist them in optimizing their PCs. The PC Checkup Center links consumers to a hosted application service offered through the McAfee Clinic and includes Clean Hard Drive and Software Update Finder.

Prevention

Clearly, it’s not just a luxury to have an antivirus protection program–it’s a necessity. No longer can computer users be without state-of-the-art protection against all forms of computer viruses. It’s an insurance policy that Garcia says, “You’ll be glad when you need it and have it, but don’t get caught without it or you’ll regret it.”

About 64 percent of companies were hit by at least one virus in the past 12 months, up from 53 percent the year before. That makes viruses the single-biggest computer and network security concern to the 2,700 executives, security professionals, and technology managers in 49 countries who responded to the Global Information Security survey conducted by Information Week and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. In the United States viruses stung 69 percent of companies.

The Global Information Security Survey also reports the number of companies hit by Trojan horses jumped to eight percent, up from three percent.

Worms, Viruses And Malicious Code – It’s Out There

The cost is particularly high for cleaning up after attacks from viruses and worms–malicious computer code often sent through e-mail that can, at worst, destroy all the data on a computer system. The worldwide cost reached $17.1 billion in 2000, a 41 percent increase over the previous year, according to Computer Economics, an information technology research firm.

wvamcBusinesses have the most to lose, but individuals are at risk too. Before last year, despite heavy Internet use, I rarely saw a virus. Lately, I’ve been subjected to an average of one attack a week, all of which have been thwarted, thus far, by antivirus software and my cautious handling of e-mail attachments.

Nobody has yet established a link between cybervandalism such as this and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. There doesn’t seem to be any significant change in malicious Internet activity related to Sept. 11, says Marty Lindner of CERT. Recognizing the threat, however, President Bush just created a government panel to look at ways to protect against cyberterrorism.

Circumstantial evidence indicates that many Internet attacks may be coming from abroad. A large percentage of the e-mail messages I’ve received with virus or worm attachments, for instance, appear to originate from those who have only a tenuous grasp, at best, of the English language. One infected e-mail message had a subject line that spelled anthrax as antrax. But virus writers like this one are likely just piggybacking on the terrorist attacks. The warped get attention and a feeling of power by stirring hysteria this way.

It’s also been shown that many hacks and viruses in the past have come from within the United States, so premature conclusions should be avoided. Xenophobia has its own negative effects.

Regardless of where Internet attacks originate, you need protection. One rule of thumb is to never open an e-mail attachment if you don’t know the person it comes from or if you’re not expecting it from someone you do know. Viruses can trick you into thinking they’re legitimate files sent by people you know.

The latest worms-viruses that can spread without human involvement-don’t even require you to open an email attachment to do their dirty work. The recent Code Red and Nimda worms exploited vulnerabilities in Microsoft’s server software. Microsoft Outlook is another frequent target.

If you’re connected to the Internet, you need antivirus software, and as protection against hackers, you need a firewall, particularly if you have a cable or DSL modem or are part of a local area network. The best-regarded antivirus program for some time has been Norton AntiVirus from Symantec, www.symantec.com The company also makes an excellent firewall, Norton Personal Firewall, and other security programs for individuals and businesses. But an even better firewall program for individuals is ZoneAlarm from Zone Labs, at www.zonelabs.com.

Businesses sometimes need enhanced protection, and computer security consultants have been quick to respond to post-Sept. 11 security fears. Businesses are expected to act, despite short-term constraints on spending from recession concerns. The worldwide market for information security services is projected to triple to $21 billion by 2005, an annual growth rate of 25 percent, according to a recent report from IDC, an information technology research firm. Much of the growth in spending is predicted to take place within small businesses and the financial services sector.

Whatever security approach you take, keep current by installing patches and upgrades as they become available. Also, prepare for data recovery if disaster does strike. Finally, protect yourself from hoaxes as well. Vmyths.com, at www.vmyths.com, is one of a number of sites that can prevent needless hair pulling.