Hoax e-mails and PC security

Computer mouse in chains

This week I received something in my e-mail inbox that I’ve not had in a while: a hoax e-mail ‘kindly’ forwarded to me by a friend or family member trying to help me and ensure that my hard drive wouldn’t be destroyed by the latest terrible virus.

Olympic Torch hoax

The hoax e-mail sent was the Olympic Torch hoax, had the subject “Please forward this warning to all of your contacts” and said

Importance: High

Be alert during the next few days: Don't open any message with an attached file called "Invitation", regardless of who sent it. It's a virus that opens an Olympic Torch that "burns" the whole hard disk of your computer.

This virus will come from someone who has your e-mail address; that's why you should send this e-mail to all your contacts. It's better to receive this message 25 times than to receive the virus.

DON'T open it , permanently delete it and re-start your computer immediately... This is the worst virus announced by CNN, it's been classified by Microsoft as the most destructive virus ever. The virus was discovered by McAfee yesterday, and there's no repair yet for this particular virus. It simply destroys the Zero Sector of the Hard Disk, where vital information is kept

How to spot a virus hoax

Virus hoaxes usually arrive in the form of an e-mail with instructions to pass this message on to all your contacts and they are often constructed using the same structure as the message above:

  • Opening paragraph about this dreadful new virus, what it does and why it’s the worst virus ever created.
  • More detailed information about how you will likely receive it (probably via e-mail) and why you should send this warning on to all your friends.
  • Information about what to do about it if you receive it (usually delete it and reboot your PC).
  • And a few references to some well-known IT companies to add weight to what they’ve said. Frequently mentioned are: AOL, CNN, McAfee, Microsoft and Norton/Symantec.

Anti-virus (AV) software companies do not send out warning e-mails (unless you’ve specifically signed up for a newsletter from them) asking you to pass on these details to your friends. AV software companies rely on two things to help you keep your PC clean of infection:

  1. that you ensure your anti-virus software is kept up to date, usually by recommending that you leave the software to automatically and regularly check for updates online — they regularly release updates that target the latest viruses, trojans and malware
  2. recommending that you practice a safe-internet routine whenever you are downloading files and/or e-mail attachments

If you receive a similar message that is warning you of the latest virus threat then please first check the Symantec Hoax site to see if your e-mail message is listed. The purposes of these e-mails is to create a sense of unnecessary panic and for you to spam your own friends!

Anti-virus software

If you don’t already have anti-virus software installed on your PC then I can thoroughly recommend AVG Anti-Virus Free 7.5.

I’ve been using it on my laptop for a few months now, and on my games partition on my main PC. One reason I like it is because it doesn’t hog system resources like other AV products do (such as Norton AntiVirus). The TweakGuides Tweaking Companion for Windows XP has an excellent walkthrough on how to optimize AVG for your system.

Another great thing about AVG, if you have a slow internet connection, is that the update downloads are generally very small. Yesterday’s update was 500 KB, today’s only 8 KB. So users still relying on a dial-up connection would be fine.

Anti-Spyware, Anti-Trojan

It’s often not enough to simply rely on your anti-virus software these days. I regularly scan my systems with AdAware SE (anti-spyware) and A-Squared Free (anti-trojan).

A regular scan once a week should be fine. Unlike anti-virus software and firewalls, you may install and run more than one package. I also allow the ZoneAlarm spyware scanner to run regularly, and Spybot Search & Destroy. The TweakGuides Tweaking Companion (mentioned above) also has a good section on using this software, I recommend that you download it and give it a read.

Firewalls

I also recommend that you make sure that you have a firewall running. A software firewall is an application that acts a bit like a bouncer for your network connection. It monitors all the in and out traffic making sure that only authorized traffic gets through.

A lot of people recommend using the built-in Windows XP firewall. I’m a little more cautious and as a long-time user of ZoneAlarm I’ve bought the ZoneAlarm Pro firewall which also adds extra e-mail and spyware monitoring capabilities. There is also a free version, which I’ve used very successfully.

Your surfing habits

One of the most important things for helping ensure that your PC does not become infected with malware — and I can’t stress this enough — is YOU! A few tips:

  • Get into the habit of regularly scanning your PC for malware (spyware, trojans, viruses). Put it into your diary, if you must (I do!).
  • Do not immediately open e-mail from recipients you do not know, especially if they have attachments. If you have an anti-spam filter then use it. The built-in one for Microsoft Outlook 2003 is excellent.
  • Get into the habit of manually scanning any download (downloads from websites, instant messenger contacts and especially from e-mails.
  • If you are in any doubt whatsoever about the security status of the file then delete it immediately and empty your Recycle Bin. If it was a genuine file from a genuine friend then they can always send it again if it was important.
  • And remember, please don’t spam your own friends! If you get a suspect e-mail check the Symantec Hoax site or simply search Google for a few of the keywords contained in the e-mail (such as Olympic Torch virus).

I hope that helps a few readers. And my e-mail inbox!

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 46 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Latterly, web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall. Currently on sabbatical. I am a priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir.

3 thoughts on “Hoax e-mails and PC security”

  1. You’ve got to have known I would come and post this…

    Or, alternatively, install Linux.
    If all you do with your computer is listen to music, watch videos, use Office, surf the web and read emails, you should really consider Linux.
    Something like Ubuntu is free to download and use, and comes with an Office package, and many other useful applications for free, or alternatively, paid support can be obtained in case you have any problems.

    There are NO known viruses and NO spyware that exist for Linux. It is without a doubt far more secure than Apple and Microsoft’s offerings, as the bugfix and security fix turn around is 10x faster, and all this for free. It’s also the largest group project in the history of mankind.

    Give it a go, if you don’t like it, you haven’t spend any money, and you can easily go back to Windows.

  2. Indeed I did.

    But for those users who can’t (or won’t) install Linux straight away, or who have invested so much money in their Windows software that it’s not cost effective to do so then they need to protect their current environment as much as possible, even if it does feel like trying to patch the Titanic with elastoplasts!

    But I quite agree, moving over to Linux for basic computing needs is certainly worth considering.

  3. You’re right of course. My brother installed AVG Free on my laptop a couple of years ago and its been the best. I’m on dialup – because I seem to have an innability to upgrade to broadband – and its never caused me any problems. Great minds as usual.

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