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By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 1999
"We're pretty sure something's going tohappen," said Dyer, chief executive of Command Software Systems in Jupiter. "We liken it to a hurricane. We know there's going to be an event. We don't know how big it's going to be, and we don't know where it's going to hit."
Though the FBI thinks only a handful of the more than 30,000 virus attacks threatened for New Year's will be set loose, computer virus experts say everyone -- from big corporations to small businesses to home PC users -- needs to be prepared.
To make it easy, some antivirus companies, including Dyer's, and Microsoft are offering free 90-day trials of their software to get people past the holiday threat. (Check www.microsoft.com/y2k/antivirus/antivirus.htm or www.commandcom.com for information.) Waiting until Dec. 31 to download software may not be wise, Dyer said, because heavy traffic could slow the Internet dramatically.
Mainly, Dyer and others want to remind PC users that doing nothing is not smart.
"People who aren't doing backups and who aren't using an active antivirus (program) -- updated, current -- they are really at risk," Dyer said. "They are exposing themselves to anything from down time to some catastrophic event.
"As much as we have tried to educate the consumer, they still don't get the seriousness of the threat and the degree to which they have to take responsibility to keep their antivirus software up to date to protect themselves."
One of the twists anticipated with some of the viruses, which can be spread by e-mail or by downloading infected files into a computer, is that they may mimic Y2K software problems, Dyer said, timing their mischief to add to potential confusion on New Year's. Some companies, she said, are shutting down their mail server systems New Year's weekend to make sure problems that occur are Y2K-related and not a virus.
"I think that's not only the right thing to do," Dyer said, "it's absolutely the essential thing to do if you don't want to complicate the issue."
At least five Y2K-related viruses are known to exist. Three of them are timed for the new year; two activate right away and spread by posing as Microsoft programs for fixing Y2K problems or programs that count down to the new year.
One is W32.Mypics.Worm, which is transmitted as an attachment to e-mail in Microsoft's Outlook and Outlook Express e-mail software. Among its actions: It will resend itself to up to 50 people in the Outlook address book. There is no subject line, and the body of the e-mail contains the phrase "Here's some pictures for you!"
The attachment, called "pics4you.exe," is a small program that runs when an unsuspecting computer user tries to view the pictures. It does its damage by changing the computer's start-up codes and later destroying all data on the hard drive. (It also changes Internet Explorer's home page to the address of a porn site, though that site has been shut down.)
Deleting the message and attachment will avoid harm. Antivirus patches are available on software companies' Web sites to handle it.
Dyer and others say businesses and consumers can protect themselves with simple precautions, including installing antivirus software and regularly keeping it updated from the software company's Web sites, not opening e-mail attachments from unknown sources and making sure friends actually sent the attachments that arrived under familiar addresses.
And the Grinch factor: "They should not be opening greeting cards, even from a trusted source," Dyer said, because such programs can hide viruses.
Dyer says the software industry does its part, with a consortium called the Computer Antivirus Research Organization serving as a clearinghouse where antivirus software companies submit information about newly discovered viruses.
"Nobody catches 100 percent of them," said Dyer, whose company was ranked No. 22 in a Dun and Bradstreet report of software companies headed by women, with more than $10-million in sales. In addition to the FBI, her clients include the Navy, the state Department of Corrections and the House of Representatives.
And her New Year's Eve plans are set.
"We are probably to have the New Year's party here, with non-alcoholic champagne," Dyer said. Those not scheduled to work will be on call and within an hour of the office, just in case.
"This could be an event of supernova proportions," Dyer said, "or it could be a non-event. It's incumbent on us to hope for best and prepare for the worst."
-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.
Users can choose from a number of antivirus programs to protect their computers. Here are Web addresses for some of the top-selling antivirus programs and their companies:
Global Virus Insurance: Panda Software, www.pandasoftware.com
InoculateIT: Computer Associates, www.cai.com
McAfee: Network Associates, www.nai.com
Norton AntiVirus: Symantec Corp., www.symantec.com
PC-illin: Trend Micro Corp., www.antivirus.com
Microsoft Y2K antivirus page: www.microsoft.com/y2k/antivirus/antivirus.htm
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