From: Bob Rankin 
Subject: TOURBUS - 15 Jan 02 - Virus Prevention


The Internet Tourbus - U.S. Library of Congress ISSN #1094-2239
Copyright © Bob Rankin and Patrick Crispen - All rights reserved

Last year I published my VIRUS PREVENTION 101/102 series in TOURBUS, and it was extremely popular. Since the past few weeks have brought us news of so many new computer viruses, I'm going to update those articles and run them again, starting today. If you think the advice is helpful, please feel free to forward this issue to a friend. (Oh, and even though this issue is a bit long, don't miss my Ginsu Knife commentary at the end - thanks!)


I have an unorthodox strategy for dealing with computer viruses. It doesn't involve the use of firewalls or anti-virus software. And if everyone understood the simple virus safety tips in this issue of The Internet TOURBUS, the virus writers would get very bored very quickly.

Sooner or later you WILL receive an email that contains a computer virus. But if you understand a few simple concepts about email and viruses, there is really nothing to worry about. I've been using email for twenty years, and I receive hundreds of messages daily. Even though I get viruses in my inbox every day, I've NEVER been affected by one. If you take a few minutes to read and apply the following concepts to your own email handling, you can have the same protection and peace of mind without buying any expensive anti-virus software.


If you keep your email software updated, you CANNOT get a virus just by opening or reading your email. This is true even if your cousin has a friend who swears it happened to his neighbor in a major city, and his wife was abducted in a mall parking lot. Many widespread virus hoaxes have circulated the Net for years, claiming that if you open an email with a certain Subject line, then untold horrors will beset your computer. It's just not true.

A virus cannot leap out of your inbox and infect your computer without some help from you! Here are some facts you should know:

+ Some emails have attached files, in addition to the message body

+ Email attachments can be good (photos, music) or bad (a virus)

+ It is safe to open and read the message body of ANY email, even if that email has an attached virus.

[NOTE: Before you write and tell me that some viruses can be activated simply by opening an email, PLEASE remember I said "if you keep your email software updated." If you have an old, unpatched copy of Microsoft Outlook, then all bets are off. More about this in VIRUS PREVENTION 102.]

In order for a computer virus to affect you, it requires some explicit action on your part. Let me explain with an analogy: Imagine someone has mailed you a loaded gun. You can't get hurt just by looking at your mailbox. You can't get hurt just by taking the package out of the mailbox. You CAN get shot if you take the gun out of the package, aim it at your head, and pull the trigger.


So what is the "explicit action" required to activate a virus that arrives in an email attachment? It's as simple as clicking on the attachment. Depending on your email program, this will either save the file to your hard disk or activate the virus immediately. It really is that simple... don't click on an attachment and you will never get a computer virus.

How can you tell the difference between good attachments and those that contain a virus? In some cases, you can't. Anti-virus software may help, but if the virus is very recent, your anti-virus package may not be able to detect it. Here are some practical tips to help you decide whether or not to open an attachment:

  • If you get an email with an attachment from someone you don't know,
  • delete it. You don't take candy from strangers, and you should behave the same with email attachments.
  • If you get an email with an attachment from a friend, don't assume
  • it's harmless! Many viruses spread by automatically sending themselves to the addresses found in the victim's address book, and they often include something in the message body that looks like a personal message from your friend.

  • Unless you are very computer savvy, and you can tell for sure from the
  • name of the attached file that it's not a virus, then CALL or EMAIL your friend and ask if they meant to send you an attachment.

  • If they say no, then obviously you should delete the message and let
  • them know THEY are probably infected with a virus.

  • If they say yes, AND they can explain what it is (photos of the family
  • picnic, etc.) then it should be safe to open the attachment.

    SEMI-TECHNICAL NOTE: Take care when checking the filename of an attachment as a guide to whether you should open it. The standard behavior of Windows is to hide the file extension (the last three characters) when filenames are displayed. Some virus writers take advantage of this and create files with names such as HAPPY.JPG.SCR, which will display as HAPPY.JPG. It appears to be a harmless JPG (photo) file, but is really a nasty virus. To force Windows to display the entire filename, open Windows Explorer, click on View / Folder Options / View, then UNcheck the "Hide file extensions for known file types" option.


    If you remember nothing else about computer viruses, try to keep these three facts in mind:

  • You can't get a virus just by reading your email.
  • A virus cannot attack without your help.
  • Never open an attachment unless you're sure it was sent on purpose,
  • and the sender can explain what it is.


    Am I saying that anti-virus software is useless? For most people, yes. If you follow the guidelines in this issue, and you handle only attachments that contain photos or sound/music files, anti-virus software is a waste of money and can make your computer slower and less reliable.

    If you deal with word processor files or spreadsheets, if you (or your kids) download software then using an anti-virus program may be a good idea. But be aware that it can only protect you from the viruses it KNOWS about. I've heard from LOTS of people who faithfully kept their anti-virus software updated, but they still got the ILOVEYOU virus (or one of the many variants) because of careless email handling.

    You should also update your email and web browser software at least every six months. Older versions may have security flaws that allow unauthorized access to your system. Here are some links that may help you to find new versions, upgrades or security patches:





    Learn about computer virus myths, hoaxes, and urban legends at Rob Rosenberger's excellent site.

    Try Central Command's Free Online Virus Scanner.

    Symantec AV Center offers information on the lastest virus threats, removal tools, and a Virus Encyclopedia.

    I understand that some people will disagree with my advice about the best way to protect yourself from computer viruses. But I believe that education is the key, rather than software that gives a false sense of security. I'll talk more about all this next week in VIRUS PREVENTION 102.


    I got a lot of feedback on Ben Prater's "Software Secrets Exposed" book that I mentioned in my last TOURBUS issue. It seems that many of you are interested in learning how to create your own software, which I think is great! Although the messages were overwhelmingly positive, there were a few that complained about the style of Ben Prater's sales copy. I'm surprised that some would react to the STYLE of an advertisement and prejudge the SUBSTANCE of the product itself. I've read Ben Prater's book, and I think it's worth every penny. I spent 15 years as a computer programmer at IBM, so I believe I'm qualified to comment on this book. It distills a lot of software development wisdom that took me years to acquire, and I learned some new things that will be helpful in my work.

    One person said Ben's sales page read like a "late-night infomercial". Maybe so, but I know that TOURBUS riders are better looking and more intelligent than the general population. So I'm sure you can separate the wheat from the chaff, if you catch my drift. I watch a lot of late- night television, and I have bought products even though I found the commercials irritating. Laugh if you like, but I bought a set of Ginsu Knives through a TV infomercial 18 YEARS AGO. I still have them, they're still sharp and I use them every day. I'm willing to go on record that "Software Secrets Exposed" is a Ginsu Knife kind of book. Even if you don't like the commercial, you'll find the product practical, useful and well worth the money.

    That's all for now, I'll see you next time! --Bob Rankin


    The Internet Tourbus - U.S. Library of Congress ISSN #1094-2239
    Copyright © Bob Rankin and Patrick Crispen - All rights reserved
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