Mimsy Were the Borogoves

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The Idiot Virus

Jerry Stratton, September 11, 1997

Well, a “friend” of mine just forwarded me a message about a “PENPAL” e-mail virus. It’s a hoax. But it doesn’t have to be.

Never, ever forward alerts about e-mail viruses via e-mail.

If you feel the need to forward an e-mail virus alert, go to the U.S. government’s Computer Incidents Advisory Center web site to verify that the virus exists. Most of these “viruses” are just hoaxes. You end up looking like an idiot and wasting people’s time.

If the virus is real, how do you know that you didn’t just send it to all of your friends? Think about it: if an e-mail virus exists, it can certainly exist in the warning that you just received. This is basic logic. It isn’t brain surgery. It isn’t rocket science. Electronic mail is electronic mail. The subject doesn’t matter. Never, ever forward an e-mail virus warning. If you need to warn someone, go to CIAC, get the information on the virus, and make a new message that gives the appropriate CIAC web page.

If you receive a virus warning, and you think it is serious, you should immediately delete that message from your mailbox. Do not forward it to anyone. If it is real, the message itself probably contains the virus, and you should not help spread this virus around! Don’t be a clueless idiot! Just because it didn’t erase your hard drive doesn’t mean it isn’t a virus: it could be programmed to only erase every fifth or sixth hard disk, or it could be programmed to wait until after you forward the message out. Yes, that’s right: it could be that the act of forwarding the message is what triggers the virus.

If a friend ever sends you a warning of this type, respond to them immediately and tell them never to do it again. Most likely they just sent you a hoax: but one of these days this clueless idiot you call a friend will send you a virus thinking they’re only sending a warning.

The Pen-Pal Virus

There have been any number of “e-mail virus” hoaxes. The particular one that brought this diatribe on was the “penpal” virus. This particular hoax has been around for at least a year. Let’s take a look at this “penpal” virus. What does the warning say that it does? The warning says that it goes into your mailbox and replicates itself, sending it to each person who has sent you e-mail recently.

What is it that people do when they get this message? They replicate it and forward it to everyone they know. Who needs a computer virus? This is an idiot virus. Why waste expensive CPU time programming a virus when idiots will do it for free and more reliably? If there is ever a real “e-mail virus” it will almost certainly be posted as a warning or other form of chain mail, and idiots will blithely forward the virus on. Do you want to be responsible for erasing a friend’s hard drive? If not, do not ever forward an e-mail virus warning--or any other form of chain mail. Ever. No matter where it came from, or who you think sent it. No true authority will ever request that such a warning be sent out via e-mail.

And if you ever feel the need to forward such a message, keep from looking like an idiot: go to CIAC and look for their “Internet Chain Letters Page” and their “Internet Hoaxes Page”. Also, try the Computer Virus Myths Homepage. If you then decide to warn your friends, write a new message without copying anything from the original message. Send it only to people who know your postal address so that they know where to go to kill you. Annoyed that I’m calling you an idiot? Feel that it’s okay because your intentions are good? Will those good intentions matter when the “warning” that you send erases a friend’s hard drive? Live with it.

The PENPAL GREETINGS virus doesn’t exist. But it might someday: and when it does, the subject line isn’t going to be “PENPAL GREETINGS”. The subject will be “virus alert, FYI”.

May 10, 2000: The “I Love You” virus

The “I Love You” virus has come and gone. One of the more interesting things about it from my perspective was that after it hit the news, someone modified it and sent it out pretending to be an anti-virus company, telling people to run the enclosed ‘software’ to rid your computer of the virus. Of course, anyone who did that ended up with a virus-infected computer. The subject? “Virus ALERT”. Pardon me while I take a few minutes to gloat.

There have even been “experts” testifying in front of congress that “something needs to be done”. Yes, something needs to be done: people need to stop running software that they didn’t ask for and don’t know what it does.

Here’s a clue: if a friend writes you an e-mail saying he or she “loves you”, don’t sit at your computer playing games. Pick up the telephone and give that person a call. For god’s sake, don’t waste time running software that you didn’t specifically solicit. If you don’t remember asking for it, you didn’t solicit it. Please don’t ask congress to step in when you do something stupid.

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