Virus Hoaxes

I have created this page, because a number of my friends are sending me, in good faith, warnings about fearsome-sounding but generally non-existant computer viruses. It is easier to have this page than to send individual explanations.

What is a Virus Hoax?

Usually it is an email, you receive from a friend, warning you that there is new fearsome virus which will destroy all your data and/or damage your computer. It is often phrased with lots of pseudo-technical mumbo-jumbo and claims to have come from some well known firm like IBM or Microsoft.

It usually suggests you will "catch" the virus if you open an email with some particular title. It then urges you to copy this warning to as many of your friends as possible.

If you think about it, the hoax is itself behaving a bit like a virus, in that it gets copied to lots of people, just like a chain letter, but it relies on you doing the copying! Of cource, it cannot actually damage your computer or your data. It just wastes your time and adds lots of unnecessary traffic to the email system. system.

To find out more, have a look at the Hoaxes article on the Sophos web site. (Sophos are a UK based company, specialising in anti-virus software and other aspects of computer security).

So what do I do if I receive such a message?

The simplest thing is to simply ignore it, and delete it. If you like, take a look at the List of Hoaxes on the Sophos site. You will probably find the message you have received, or a very similar one, on this list.

You could send the friend from whom you received the message, an email explaining that it is a hoax, and pointing them to this web page. The address is:

The important thing, is: Do NOT forward the hoax email to your friends.. This is just doing what the author wanted you to.

But what if it was a real warning?

It won't be! Unless it has actually come from someone whom you know to be a computer expert, it may safely be ignored.

What about real viruses?

There are certainly real viruses in circulation, the worst of which can wipe some or all of your data. In theory it should not be possible to be infected with a virus by just reading an email. BUT a number of viruses have been written which exploit security "vulnerabilities" in popular email clients. See the analysis of such a virus at the Sophos web site for details. The best advice, if you don't know the sender and/or the subject sounds suspicious, is to delete the email without reading it. It also makes sense to take advantage of manufacturers' fixes for any security problems discovered, by ensuring that your operating system, web browser and email client are kept up to date.

Leaving aside this particular problem (or having installed the patch), just reading an email should be perfectly safe. However if the email has an attachment, and you open this, you are at risk. Viruses can be incorporated in Word Documents and Excel Spreadsheets for example. So the advice here, is never to open attachments, unless you know whom they have come from and are sure that they are virus free. Similarly don't forward emails with attachments to your friends unless you are sure about their content.

The other risky operation is when downloading any software from web sites. Here the advice is only to downlaod from sites which you know and trust. Even then it is prudent to scan anything you have downloaded, with an up-to-date virus scanner, before you attempt to run it.

What Anti-Virus precautions should I take?

The only safe way to protect your data is to keep verified back up copies of anything that is important to you, on a floppy disk or similar, which you store away from the computer. This not only protects your data from viruses, it also protects against the three most likely reasons for data loss, any of which is much more likely than a virus attack.

Copyright © Alan Simpson 2000-2006 Back to index. Last Updated 2006-11-28