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False Alarms

Our guide to what's new, what's hot, what's helpful on the Web.

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,

*Computer Incident Advisory Capability,

*Computer Virus Myths,

*Police Notebook of Virus Hoaxes,

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.

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