How can a computer get sick?

A powerful virus called Bugbear has been going around town. Powerful enough to infect the mighty servers of the Arusha Times.

Like viruses that attack humans, computer viruses copy themselves and spread. The recent growth of the internet has enabled viruses like Bugbear to reach around the world in a matter of hours, reaching even our “Geneva of Africa”. They are short programmes written by people who want to cause trouble.

How do you catch one?

To do damage a virus has to get onto your computer. Since we have become so reliant on email, this is the number one way for viruses to multiply. Most computer viruses are disguised as innocent looking email attachments – files and programmes attached to regular messages. When you open an infected attachment the virus strikes. Once on your computer they can start every time you switch it on, or run a particular programme.


Most viruses damage documents and programmes, possibly causing the loss of months of work and even stopping your computer from working altogether. This can cost you a great deal.

Some send your personal details and passwords to the virus’ writer. Bugbear even allows that person to use your computer to attack other computers, making you look guilty.

Viruses seek to spread themselves. They may send copies to every email address on your computer. Your friends may think you sent it to them deliberately.

How do they work?

Virus writers exploit small errors and oversights in software. Internet Explorer and Outlook Express are frequent targets. These programmes are closely linked with the internet, so are perfect for spreading the disease further.

Microsoft Word is also a target because it is very easy to write viruses that attack Word documents. That Word attachment you received could contain the Wazzu virus. This virus moves text around your documents and inserts the word “wazzu” at random. You might not notice until after you sent the document to a potential client who would rather not hear such language.

Almost every computer runs Windows, making it a prime target. An attack on Windows can affect everything on your computer.

Viruses such as Michelangelo lie dormant like a time bomb before carrying out their destructive tasks, in this case destroying programmes and documents every March 6th – Michelangelo’s birthday.

Psychological warfare

Some recent viruses have exploited human nature to aid their spread. We would all like to discover a secret admirer. The ILOVEYOU virus of 2000 played on this daydream. Victims received an email saying I love you. Please read the attached love letter. The irresistible attachment was in fact the virus, which sent copies of the email to every address in the victim’s address book. All of whom then thought the victim fancied them! A chain of lust!

A friend might send you a helpful looking email warning of a virus, telling you to delete certain ‘dangerous’ files and pass the message on. Your computer cannot work properly without these files! Such “viruses” infect YOUR MIND! Extremely clever and embarrassing when you find out what is really happening, and of course, you passed it on. A chain of shame!

Prevention is better than cure

This is a message to all the real men, and women, out there – it is your responsibility to protect yourself and others from viruses!

Microsoft constantly produces updates to fix the flaws in its software. Regularly visiting its update site and running the updates is one way of protecting yourself.

Another step is installing anti-virus software like Norton Anti-Virus or AVG. These compare everything you run with a list of known viruses. If they see something suspicious they will stop it and let you know. Anti-virus software must be updated regularly to be effective. New viruses are discovered daily!

Turn off the preview pane in Outlook (look in the View menu). It can activate viruses without you opening an attachment.

Use your head. When you receive an attachment, think before opening it – Were you expecting the attachment? Do you know the person who sent it? Does the subject line look suspicious? If alarms go off in your head do not open it. Contact the sender to confirm they sent it deliberately.

Stay informed. Subscribe to an email warnings service, such as the one provided by Sophos.

Never forward warnings about a virus to anyone without first checking a reputable anti-virus site – especially if they tell you to make changes to your computer.

Cures for sick computers

If you suspect your computer has been infected immediately disconnect it from the internet to halt the spread.

Scan your computer with anti-virus software – you have been keeping it up to date, haven’t you? You do have anti-virus software?

Use another computer to get advice from an anti-virus web site.

Use your computer safely and responsibly.

Interesting web sites

  • – Grisoft produce AVG Anti-Virus, free anti-virus software with daily updates. Not as nice as a paid
    for version, but as effective, and the price is right!
  • – world class anti virus software designed for the corporate environment. The site is one of the best
    sources of information about viruses current and past, and warnings about the latest hoaxes. Also includes warnings by email.
  • – updates and security fixes for Microsoft products.

Originally published in Arusha Times 275


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