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An new email-borne virus uses a number of fresh tricks designed to fool unwary Internet users.

Magistr is a polymorphic Windows 32 executable file virus which features the facility to reproduce itself within emails with randomly subject, body text and attachment names. It also carries a destructive payload containing code similar to the hardware destroying Kriz virus.

Like Kriz, Magistr can destructively flash a PC's BIOS as well as overwrite data. If users click on the executable attachment of an infected message they risk have their data overwritten and replaced by text files containing the message: "You think you are God, but you are only a piece of shit."

The virus searches a user's address book, mailboxes and other files present on an infected machine for email addresses. It specifically targets addresses from Outlook Express, Netscape Navigator and Internet Mail and News. Once a list of email addresses has been obtained, Magistr sends itself to these addresses using its own email client.

The virus, which spreads by infecting files and via email, has affected a number of users but its outbreak seems to have been contained. Antivirus vendors are in the process of updating virus definition files so that Magistr is detected, and protection is largely in place.

Alex Shipp, senior anti-virus technologist at MessageLabs, which scans customers email for malicious code, said the company had intercepted 26 copies of the virus - so far. By comparison, MessageLabs caught 9,000 copies of the Anna Kournikova bug in an equivalent period.

Graham Cluley, of antivirus vendor Sophos, claimed that Magistr strengthens arguments for practicing "safe computing", as users are unable to look for a specific subject header or file name in order to identify the virus.

Safe computing means that you do not open attachments to suspect, unexpected emails and you us up-to-date antivirus software, said Cluley, who added firms should also consider blocking executable files at corporate gateways because of the risk they pose.

This would mean that only IT staff could install software obtained over the Internet on machines but Cluley said the policy was still worth considering in the interests of security. ®

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