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Virus Information/Prevention


This page is intended to assist faculty, students and staff in understanding some of the most important aspects of computer viruses and their prevention. As the way people exchange electronic information changes, so does the nature of viruses. Viruses are not to be ignored, but they can and should be dealt with in a calm and rational way.

What is a computer virus?

Viruses are computer programs that are designed to spread themselves from one file to another on a single computer. A virus might rapidly infect every application file on an individual computer, or slowly infect the documents on that computer, but it does not intentionally try to spread itself from that computer to other computers. In most cases, that's where humans come into the process. We send e-mail document attachments, trade programs on diskettes, or copy files to file servers. When the next unsuspecting user receives the infected file or disk, they spread the virus to their computer, and so on.

Where do viruses come from?

Since a virus is just a computer program, a virus can be produced by anyone that has some computer programming knowledge. Usually viruses are engineered by three distinct classes of people.

  1. People who have distorted ideas of what is right and what is wrong.
  2. People who look for vengeance when not satisfied with their job or when they loose their job.
  3. People who want to test their programming ability and have nothing better to do.

What can computer viruses do?

There are many things viruses can do. Usually a virus is assigned to do a single task, such as deleting non-system dependent files or programs (files used to run the programs you installed), deleting system files (files that your computer needs to function as a computer), renaming files, altering files, or displaying graphics. There are several different kinds of viruses.

  • Trojan Horse
  • Worm
  • Malignant Virus
  • Benign Virus
  • Virus Hoax

A Trojan Horse program comes with a hidden surprise intended by the programmer but totally unexpected by the user. Trojan Horses are often designed to cause damage or do something malicious to a system, but are disguised as something useful. Unlike viruses, Trojan Horses don't make copies of themselves. Like viruses, they can cause significant damage to a computer.

Worms are like viruses in that they do replicate themselves. However, instead of spreading from file to file, they spread from computer to computer, infecting an entire network system.

Worms are insidious because they rely less (or not at all) upon human behavior in order to spread themselves from one computer to others. The computer worm is a program that is designed to copy itself from one computer to another, leveraging some network medium: e-mail, TCP/IP, etc. The worm is more interested in infecting as many machines as possible on the network, and less interested in spreading many copies of itself on a single computer (like a computer virus). The prototypical worm infects (or causes its code to run on) a target system only once; after the initial infection, the worm attempts to spread to other machines on the network.

Viruses are either benign or malignant. The majority of viruses are harmless and do no real damage to a computer or files. A benign virus might do nothing more than display a message at a predetermined time or slow down the performance of a computer. Malignant viruses cause damage to a computer system, such as corrupting files or destroying data. (These viruses don't corrupt the files they infect; that would prevent them from spreading. They infect, and then wait for a trigger date to do damage.) Just because a virus is classified as malignant does not mean that the damage it causes is intentional. Sometimes the damage is the result of poor programming or unintended bugs in the viral code.

A virus hoax is an e-mail that is intended to scare people about a nonexistent virus threat. Users often forward these alerts thinking they are doing a service to their fellow workers, but this causes lost productivity, panic and lost time. This increased traffic can soon become a massive problem in e-mail systems and cause unnecessary fear and panic.

What can I do to keep my system safe?

  1. Do not open any files attached to an e-mail from an unknown, suspicious or untrustworthy source.
  2. Do not open any files attached to an e-mail unless you know what it is, even if it appears to come from a dear friend or someone you know. Some viruses can replicate themselves and spread through e-mail. Better to be safe than sorry and confirm that they really sent it.
  3. Do not open any files attached to an e-mail if the subject line is questionable or unexpected. If the need to do so is there always save the file to your hard drive before doing so.
  4. Delete chain e-mails and junk mail. Do not forward or reply to any of them These types of e-mail are considered unsolicited and intrusive which clogs up the network.
  5. Do not download any files from strangers.
  6. Exercise caution when downloading files from the internet. Ensure that the source is a legitimate and reputable one. If you're uncertain, don't download the file at all or download the file to a floppy and scan it with your own anti-virus software.
  7. Update your anti-virus software regularly. Over 500 viruses are discovered each month, so you'll want to be protected. These updates should involve at least putting the product's latest virus signature files on your system. You may also need to update the product's scanning engine as well.
  8. Back up your files on a regular basis to a separate location from your work files, one that is preferably not on your computer. If a virus destroys your files, at least you can replace them with your backup copy in
  9. When in doubt, always err on the side of caution and do not open, download, or execute any files or e-mail attachments. Not executing is the more important of these caveats. Check with your product vendors for updates which include those for your operating system web browser, and e-mail.
  10. If you are in doubt about any potential virus related situation in which you find yourself, contact the Help Desk at 301-687-7777.
  11. Some e-mails are sent as a hoax and encourage you to forward their message on to as many users as you know. These hoaxes are intended to overwhelm systems and/or use up network resources by having the hoax message repeatedly sent by unsuspecting users.

How do I obtain the latest upgrades and updates?

Contact the Help Desk for assistance.