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Melissa virus threatens to bring email to a halt

Updated Distributes porn chain letter and infects Word documents

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Email users today face being tricked into passing on a new kind of chain-letter virus which could crash their PC systems and clog-up their servers. The threat, going by the name Melissa, affects Microsoft Word 97, Word 2000 and Outlook. Hundreds of thousands of PCs have already been affected, according to today's Financial Times. The virus strikes by sending an email entitled "Important message from..." followed by the senders' name, deceiving users into believing they recognise the sender. Messages usually read: "Here is the document you asked for. Don't show it to anyone else." A Word document is attached to the email, normally named List.doc. Inquisitive recipients get a list of 80 smutty Web sites plus the virus infection. From there, 50 names are picked from the recipient's address book and each is sent a new message carrying the virus. The whole process is then repeated. The virus itself does little to actually damage unlucky recipients' PC systems, though it may disable anti-virus protection software. The real threat comes from the sheer volume of traffic it can create, enabling it to clog company email servers and the Internet. Once Melissa is inside your PC it will infect your Word documents. It will only become activated if it is activated at a time when the minutes of the hour match the day of the month. For example, ten minutes past the hour on the tenth day of the month. It will then insert the following phrase into the open Word document: "Twenty-two points, plus triple-word score, plus fifty points for using all my letters. Game's over. I'm outta here." The bug was discovered on Friday and warnings were issued over the weekend. The Dr Solomon's Anti-virus Patrol Unit of software company McAfee found it first at the alt.sex newsgroup on Friday afternoon. The Computer Emergency response Team at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh put out an alert the next day, warning Melissa could put email systems out of service. Companies acted rapidly to the advice. Intel turned off all external and internal email worldwide on Saturday morning to do checks and stop any risk of spreading. The chip giant's email service resumed as normal on Saturday evening. Microsoft is also reported to have suspended all incoming and outgoing email on Friday. Melissa is one of the fastest spreading virus encountered so far, according to anti-virus company DataFellows. "We've never seen a virus spread so rapidly," comments Mikko Hypponen, DataFellows' manager of anti-virus research. "We've seen a handful of viruses that distribute themselves automatically over email, but not one of them has been as successful as Melissa in the real world." Hypponen said he expected many companies to encounter the virus today, possibly causing chaos to their systems. ®

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