Red Alert... Warning... Beware...

[reprinted from IEEE - Fort Worth Section Signals April 1996]

by Jeff Carrell, Electronic Communications Chairman

Recently, an email was circulating the 'Net describing an email that if you received it and then read it, it could reformat your hard drive, before you would even know it had happened. Yes it *might* be true, but there are some things to discuss here.

First off, this is apparently a common tactic/scare ploy used by some, that circulates the 'Net every so often and usually sets off a panic among 'Net users. Although this type of issue is probably not factual, it in fact could be _somewhat_ true. I would at least recommend that you be wary of such info passed to you, and take whatever precautions you deem necessary to protect your computing environment.

Given very exacting circumstances, if you received an email and it was created to be opened and read by a specific email application, then just about anything is possible. Yes, there could be an embedded virus that could potentially kick off a process to inflict damage to your computer's hard drive, etc., but the chances of this are pretty slim, but still doable. Therefore, an email of this type could affect your computer and/or data if you had the exact combination of applications. The more likely calamity is that you could receive an email with an attached file, and the attached file has a virus embedded in it, as happened to me recently.

In February, I received an email from a vendor with two files attached in the email. My email application is EudoraPro, which as soon as I receive an email, any attached files are automatically detached and stored in a predetermined subdirectory on my hard disk. When I open the email, I then have information noting that the attached files were successfully saved. After reading the email from my vendor, I then opened the documents, read and printed them. Since they were created with MSWord for a Macintosh computer, I resaved one of the files on my PC since I use Windows/MSWord, for convenience sake.

Either that same day or the next, I happened to be surfing on the Symantec web page, when I noticed a new virus definition file for Norton Anti-Virus, of which I use as my virus scanning program. I downloaded the new def file and scanned my PC. Guess what, this new def file detects a *new* virus which is an embedded Word Macro, reported that the two files I had just received from the email and the file I had opened and resaved, all had this new virus in them! And to make matters worse, these files could not be repaired, so I immediately deleted them off my system, then sent an email to my vendor to alert them to possible problems on their end.

The point, don't always take everything you read (even from me :-) as absolute, but also don't discard some of these types of emails as trivial, since some threats could be genuine. Be careful and ask questions. When I receive these types of emails, I'll research them quickly and then forward them (to those I have email addresses for...) on with an appropriate caveat. Also, anything is really possible when there are so many technology choices available.

Additionally, if you use an anti-virus program, update the definition file as often as the vendor supplies def files. If they don't often supply files, you may want to consider a different application that does update regularly.

Safe Computing---

Have a question or want to know more details about e-mail, the Internet, electronic communications or related technologies? Send a note to me or Signals editor and we will try discuss it in a future article. If your society, company or other organization would like an Internet presentation, demo, discussion, etc., let me know. (no commercial pitch, just plain 'ole techie talk :-)

Copyright 1996 Jeffrey L. Carrell. All Rights Reserved