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Trouble doesn't end when virus is gone

It's like a lingering cough after a pesky cold. You remove a virus that has infected your computer, but the PC still shudders and shakes for days or weeks.

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 3, 2000


An error message pops up when the machine is turned on, reporting a missing Windows file, then the screen goes blank. You reboot successfully but more error messages flash on the screen, saying one of those mysterious "dll" (dynamic link library) files also is gone or access to a favorite Web site isn't possible. The scanner disappears from Windows' view.

You reboot some more, you reinstall software, you check with friends, you mutter a few bad words, maybe more than a few. When will this cursed bug be gone?

Until last month, I had avoided these virus-based maladies with names such as Melissa, Chernobyl and I Love You. Then Life Stages arrived in what I thought was a work-related e-mail message. It appeared to be a not very funny joke.

About an hour later, another e-mail warned that it was a virus. Too late. In a moment of carelessness, I had opened the original message and downloaded the attachment on my home PC without running a virus scan on it it first.

Now the joke really wasn't funny. I gained a newfound sympathy for people who have suffered such virus-related headaches and the time it takes to get things right. And I learned of some developing technologies that will make it easier to handle these problems.

More immediately, I had to fix my computer.

Life Stages spreads by e-mail, as most recent viruses do, and it clogged some companies' e-mail systems because it automatically sent messages to people listed in e-mail address books. But it spread slower and caused less damage than other viruses. (Less damage, of course, is a matter of opinion when your computer is hit.)

I ran my antivirus software. It scanned approximately 30,000 files on my computer in about 15 minutes and found nine infected files, which it then eliminated. I checked the e-mail program and found that it had not yet sent infected messages from my system. Another scan, just to make sure, found the system clean.

Clean, though, didn't mean smooth running, because the error messages and other problems appeared later. "We call these changes side effects," said Carey Nachenberg, chief researcher at the Symantec AntiVirus Research Center (www.sarc.com).

Side effects can include deleting files, changing data as it is saved to the hard drive in ways that are impossible to detect (changing 1s to 0s, for example, in the digital code), and even wreaking havoc with basic system settings and codes.

Usually this is damage done by the original virus, not hidden time bombs planted by the viruses and undetected during the clean-up. Often the problem doesn't show up until a user tries to do something, say, print or scan, the first time after a clean-up. It's an experience I found exasperating, as have Tech Times readers who have sent e-mail on the ordeal.

"I am at a loss as what to do," one reader wrote about a post-virus problem in June. "I have tried everything."

The good news is that help is available to repair the damage, and more is on the way.

Symantec and some other antivirus companies' Web sites not only provide information about the viruses, but also how to manually remove them and repair the damage.

Nachenberg says Symantec is developing technology for future versions of its Norton AntiVirus software that not only will get rid of an infection but repair the damage and eliminate most side effects.

"In the next year or so that will all be automatic," Nachenberg said.

I downloaded a fix from McAfee's site (www.nai.com) that repaired most of the problems from the Life Stages virus. I also had to download Internet Explorer again, which eliminated another problem.

My PC seems to have returned to normal. I can only hope no more side effects are lurking.

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