When your brother-in-law sends you a dire warning about a new computer virus circulating on the Internet, he's doing you a favor, right? Wrong.
Believe it or not, many of the friendly warnings about viruses that threaten to bring our computers to their knees can wreak nearly as much havoc as the viruses themselves.
So-called "virus hoaxes" are just that: impostors, mere rumors of nonexistent computer viruses. Circulated over the Internet in the same way real viruses are, virus hoaxes are really just messages designed to strike fear into the hearts of computer users everywhere. And as is the case with true viruses, the people who create them are merely out to stir up mischief.
According to the Computer Incident Advisory Capability, the U.S. Department of Energy's response team, virus hoaxes and their first cousins, e-mail chain letters, "cost millions of dollars annually in time spent by countless people diverted from productive work, resources devoted to virus detection and defense, and bandwidth utilized that floods the Internet with useless and harmful e-mail."
David Schairer, vice president and chief systems architect at Concentric Network Corp., an ISP in Cupertino, California, says virus hoaxes have done more damage in time wasted and overall angst than the real viruses out there.
How do you identify a virus hoax? Telltale signs include a warning that your hard drive will be destroyed if you download something from the Internet, and an exhortation to "send this message to all your friends."
To learn more about virus hoaxes, check out the following Web sites:
*Charles Hymes' Don't Spread That Hoax, http://www.nonprofit.net/hoax/hoax.html
*Computer Incident Advisory Capability, http://ciac.llnl.gov/ciac
*Computer Virus Myths, http://kumite.com/myths
*Police Notebook of Virus Hoaxes, http://www.ou.edu/oupd/vhoac.htm
To protect yourself against real viruses, purchase and load a good software utility such as Norton AntiVirus. (For more information on Norton AntiVirus, see "Hot Disks) Finally, if you suspect a message sent to you is really a virus hoax, don't pass it on. Just hit the Delete button--and tell your brother-in-law to hit his, too.
Bronwyn Fryer writes about technology for Newsweek, C/NET and other publications from her office in Santa Cruz, California.
I'll Take You There
Move over, Navigator and Explorer. A freebie called Alexa (http://www.alexa.com) is the coolest browser-booster around. As you surf the Net, Alexa--which appears as a tiny toolbar at the bottom of your screen--helps steer you to where you should go next. As you settle on a Web site, it lists related sites you might want to check out. You can even find out the name and contact information of site owners, how often that site is visited and how fast it can turn pages.
Alexa is stuffed full of helpful tools. For instance, if you run across a page in which you see the message "file not found," Alexa can show you a previous version of the page. There's even a link to an online dictionary, and a thesaurus, too.
Claim Your Name
So you want to set up shop on the Internet? Then take care in choosing a domain name. If you try to use a domain name that someone else already has dibs on, you may get slapped with a lawsuit. (McDonald's, Time-Warner, Hasbro and other companies have taken up the cudgel against those daring to use trademarked names as domain names.)
Unfortunately, if a domain name already belongs to someone else, you're out of luck. But here are some tips from Victor G. Arcuri, general manager of Arvic Search Services Inc., a trademark name search service in Calgary, Alberta, for securing your own domain name.
First, go to the U.S. Department of Commerce's Patent and Trademark Office Web site at http://www.uspto.gov, and run a search on the name to see if it's already in use. A number of trademark search services can also find out for you.
Once you choose an unclaimed domain name, you must register it and use it properly. Essentially, that means using the name as a trademark--and using your site to provide free services or information that helps others. Offering information about your area of expertise, articles, links to other sites or helpful hints signifies you're providing services to the public, and thus your use of the domain name is protectable, explains Arcuri.
Arcuri offers other rules for protecting your domain name. He recommends using it as an adjective rather than as a noun. For instance, if your company is Xyz Products, use the phrase "Xyz products" in all company correspondence--not "the products of Xyz." Also, unless your domain name specifically uses a lower case initial letter, always capitalize its initial letter--you can even use all capital letters. In addition, always use your domain name consistently and exactly as registered--and don't use the domain name in plural form. For example, you can say, "Buy two Xyz products and get one free," but you should not say, "Buy two Xyzs and get one free." Finally, make sure you always use a trademark symbol ((TM)) with your name.
The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has been working on a plan to deliver electronic postage (called indicium) over the Internet, and it looks like the technology is close at hand.
The latest news: Last August, the USPS gave the nod to a California company called StampMaster (http://www.stampmaster.com) to begin test-marketing a new Net-postage delivery service. The company is currently testing a software product that will print bar-coded postage stamps right at your desk, for a fraction of the cost of a postage meter.
To use the software, which StampMaster will offer for free from its Web site, you select the amount of postage needed and hit the Print button; the software then communicates with StampMaster's server. The server, which keeps track of how much money is on your USPS account, approves the purchase and sends a bar-coded indicium back to your computer. Then, presto: The indicium is automatically printed on your envelope.
StampMaster is "hoping for a national launch at the end of March," says company co-founder Jim McDermott. "We think it's going to be big."