Lab Debunks E-mail Hoaxes

Lab Debunks E-mail Hoaxes

Don't panic if you receive an e-mail message that says "VIRUS ALERT!!! DON'T OPEN E-MAIL NOTING AOL4FREE."

It's a hoax.

Many e-mails circulating the Internet these days that warn of dangerous computer viruses are hoaxes, say the computer specialists at the Department of Energy's Computer Incident Advisory Capability (CIAC) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. According to David Crawford, a computer security analyst at CIAC, eight of every 10 e-mails and telephone calls the lab receives about viruses are hoaxes.

People often get scared when they receive the fake virus warnings, so they forward the warnings to their friends and colleagues. With the ease of e-mail, a hoax can be sent to thousands of people very quickly.

To combat the spread of false alarms the hoaxes cause, CIAC has set up a Web page to spread the truth about the pranks. The page lists common e-mail hoaxes, including the most recent one, AOL4FREE.

The AOL4FREE hoax is spread by people who send an e-mail warning that if you receive an e-mail with the subject, AOL4FREE, you shouldn't open it. If you do open it, the warning says, a virus will attack your computer's hard drive and wipe out everything on it. The warning advises people to forward the message on to everyone they know to prevent the virus from spreading.

CIAC,however, says that the warning is a hoax because opening an e-mail message will not allow a virus to attack your computer.

"Reading an e-mail message, even one with an attached [virus] program, can not do damage to a system. The attachment must be both downloaded onto the system and run to do any damage," Crawford said.

Crawford, warns, however, that there is a real virus-like "trojan horse" program circulating the Internet called AOL4FREE. The program is called a trojan horse because it must be run on your computer to cause damage, unlike a virus, which can spread on its own. The pranksters who send the trojan horse out tell their victims that if they run the AOL4FREE program, they will be able to use America Online for free. But when the victims actually run the program, it launches a trojan horse on their computers that systematically wipes out all the computers' files.

Several federal agencies have downloaded and executed the AOL4FREE trojan horse, Crawford said.

If you receive an e-mail message warning you of a virus, the best thing to do is contact an authoritative source like your systems administrator or a computer security team like CIAC, the team's Web page says. You should wait before you go e-mailing all your colleagues about the "virus." If you don't, the joke may be on you.

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