The number of email viruses soared last year to the point where one in 700 emails was infected, according to a survey by a firm which scans electronic communications for malicious code.
MessageLabs, which scans over 3 million emails per day, said it had detected and stopped an average of one email virus every three minutes during 2000. In some months, the number of viruses per email reached one in 700, up from one in 2000 at the start of the year.
May - the month of the Love Bug - saw 23,290 viruses detected, but that was by no means the worst. October topped the list with 30,678 virus incidents.
Alex Shipp, chief anti-virus technologist at MessageLabs, said: "Virus activity now is as bad as when the Love Bug was out. People's guard has gone down and they've got lax. There are no real killer viruses out there at the moment that would really alert people."
He added that typical of such viruses currently doing the rounds is the Prolin worm which poses as 'a great Shockwave Flash movie'. Prolin replicates by opening the address book in Outlook Express, scans all available disk drives and infects ZIP, MP3 and JPEG files.
Other viruses in the 'top 10' public enemy list included the Love Bug and JS/Kak-m, the worm virus that embeds itself in Outlook Express without having to open an attachment.
Jack Clark, European product manager at Network Associates, said that last year saw an explosion in mail-enabled viruses, many of which targeted Outlook users because the program is the most commonly used email client. He predicted that viruses on platforms such as Palm and WinCE will become more of a problem as personal digital assistants use becomes common in business.
MessageLabs' Shipp said that 2001 will prove as dire a year for infection as 2000 unless "IT departments pull their finger out and update their software" and users learn that opening an attachment they are not expecting means running a high risk of infection. ®