Its flu season for your computer!

May 1, 1999
It`s the beginning of March and I am trying to get over a huge case of the flu. As I curse the virus that traveled through me and my entire household, I feel the need to discuss computer viruses with you and how they can affect all of us. Checking out our computers for viruses is one of those chores that many of us ignore until it is too late.

Jeffrey B. Dalin, DDS

It`s the beginning of March and I am trying to get over a huge case of the flu. As I curse the virus that traveled through me and my entire household, I feel the need to discuss computer viruses with you and how they can affect all of us. Checking out our computers for viruses is one of those chores that many of us ignore until it is too late.

There is no widely accepted definition of the term, computer virus. My definition is: an executable code that, when run by someone, infects or attaches itself to other executable codes in a computer in order to reproduce itself. Some of these viruses are malicious and will erase files or lock up systems. Others merely present problems by infecting other codes. In either case, you need to take these problems very seriously.

Closely related to viruses are Trojan Horses and worms. Trojan Horses are programs that perform an undesired, yet intended action, while pretending to do something else. One example of such a phenomenon is a fake log-in program. Another is a disk-defragmenting program that erases files, rather than reorganizing them. A Trojan Horse differs from a virus in that the former does not attempt to reproduce itself. A worm, on the other hand, is a self-propagating virus.

Viruses come in many shapes and sizes. Some of the most common ones are file infectors, cluster viruses, and system infectors. A virus must be executed by someone in order to spread. Period. They do not just appear and do their damage. If you delete attachments or programs before opening them or executing them, they will not affect your computer. Many viruses are picked up by booting from an infected floppy disk, running an infected program, or opening up an attachment with e-mail that is an executable file or an infected document. The way to avoid these viruses is to 1) know who is sending you programs or documents and 2) run an antivirus program on your system at all times.

I have been hit by a virus: the dreaded Happy 99 ska Trojan Horse virus. It came along with some e-mail as an attachment from someone I knew. Luckily, it is not a malicious infection. It did not "melt down" my hard drive or cause my computer to crash. It merely became a nuisance. And there is a happy ending to this story: my antivirus program detected it and took care of the problem.

Many of the commercially available antivirus programs have Web sites which will help you learn about viruses and separate fact from fiction when the alarms are being sounded about viruses that are floating around cyberspace. They do want to sell you their product as well, but they also have excellent information to share with you. Some of these sites are:

IBM:

www.av.ibm.com/current/Front Page;

Symantec:

www.symantec.comavcenter;

Dr.Solomon`s:

www.drsolomon.com;

Network Associates:

www.nai.com/

products/antivirus; MacVirus:

www.macvirus.com.

Two other sites will help you differentiate the real virus threats from the hoaxes. These are not maintained by any of the manufacturers of the antivirus programs, so you will not have to worry about any of the commercial hype:

Computer Virus Myths:

www.kumite.com/myths

Doug Muth`s HelpPage:

www.claws-and-paws.com/virus.

So, be smart ... get that antivirus program installed on your computer. Get updates from the manufacturer weekly, and run your virus-protection program on a daily basis. It seems like a hassle to do all of this, but it is well worth the effort when you discover a virus and eradicate it before it can do any damage to your computer.

I only wish the flu vaccines worked that effectively on us humans!

Jeffrey B. Dalin, DDS, FACD, FAGD, practices general dentistry in St. Louis. He also is the editor of St. Louis Dentistry Magazine and spokesperson and critical-issue-response-team chairperson for the Greater St. Louis Dental Society. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected], by phone at (314) 567-5612, or by fax at (314) 567-9047.