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By Bruce Bahmani
September 8, 2003
The Iranian

By now almost all of us have felt the effect of the now famous Blaster worm. This latest insect has affected hundreds of thousands of PC's (Us Mac users have not been affected. Thanks Steve!) around the world causing them to suddenly shut down, or worse, lose their internet connection! The cost is not a mere annoyance. Thousands of corporate servers running systems as old as NT, 2000, as well as the highly touted secure XP have been infected. Causing entire offices to shut down early giving expensive-to-keep employees a half day off here, a half day off there as IT armies hunt down and attempt to eradicate the offending scripts like Special Forces after Al Qaeda.

A particularly cunning virus, that I will for now term the "I Love You" type, sits on a PC (Again, Mac users are unaffected) and looks for your email tool (Outlook etc.) and when you have an internet connection, uses one of your friends' email addresses in your addressbook, pretending to be them, sends itself as an attachment to everyone in your addressbook. This makes it look as if a friend of yours has used your PC and sent out email to everyone in your addressbook. With the virus attached. When it arrives, all of your PC using friends are potentially infected, and the virus now uses their computers to do the same and so on and so on. Very Nasty Indeed!

That is why you will no doubt have gotten an email from someone you don't know, asking you why you sent them an email. Don't worry, you didn't. It was probably someone who has you in their addressbook, and with the luck of the draw, their computer sent out the virus pretending to be you. Very Sneaky Indeed!

If you are like me, you would like to know what to do to stop getting these viruses or better, how to stop getting the Viagra ads! It seems that what was once a cool communications medium has turned into a huge pain in the....neck.

It is estimated that the average email user now receives over 70 unsolicited emails every day! And that is going to go up as it is expected that within one year we will all likely receive 120 or more unwanted emails. And that's just based on SPAM! This does not count in the blaster type worms and viruses which send out email or rather, "blast" email to everyone from everyone.

To get a handle on this issue of incerasing concern I did a bit of research on how these things work, why SPAM seems to continue to be popular and what our options are for the near future. I must warn you now that this will be boring and techno-talkish, but I will do my best to keep it simple and hopefully add in some color to make it more digestible. If not you can read this at nighttime when you need something really boring to read and ... aah...sleep well my prince or princess.

Still awake? Wow! You are worried aren't you! OK here's what we know;

Blaster worms, I Love You Viruses, and Macros;

As the PC world realigns itself to it's latest trend, or the UNIX-style environment it has now decided to adopt, shortcuts in the development of your computer's basic operating system are standard. Basically, for those of you on PC's it's Microsoft's fault. In the mad rush to release their next generation operating system, they have unwittingly (or wittingly) left open many back doors, unattended gateways, and well, basically produced a mostly OK, but ultimately shoddy product. This is proven by how fast the patches are made available. One would think that if Microsoft would spend the time looking for the kind of open holes in their code, those same ones that overweight and lonely teenagers with bad haircuts can find, they would be able to avoid the problem altogether. Why they don't do this is beyond me.

It's kind of like finding out that the trunk lock of your new car is glued on instead of welded. It may work for you fine, but thieves can get in really easily. And that is exactly what is happening.

How do you know if you have an open back door? Well, it's not easy unless you are a programmer with several degrees (which I know many of you have!). And it's not like there is a n obvious draft you can follow. You must check the Microsoft website, literally every day to see what patches have been released for you to install to plug the dike. Yes, you've just been turned into the little Dutch boy. Nice hat!

So, why doesn't Microsoft plug the holes before releasing their products to the consumer? Who knows. In the meantime, if you use a PC and you are running any of Microsoft software on it, you need to keep checking their website for patches. Beware that some viruses or worms prevent you from installing these patches!

The Mac, Linux or Unix computers don't have these problems.

Of these 3 the Mac is the best alternative, as it runs almost all the productivity software that PC's use (Excel, PowerPoint, Oh yeah and Word), and in some cases these products are even superior to their PC counterparts and are completely cross platform safe. Meaning, if you create a Word document on a Mac and email it to a PC, it will open up. Trust me, I do it all the time.

However nothing, but nothing can seem to stop SPAM.

SPAM is that unwanted email that doesn't have a virus or worm attached to it, and is typically selling something useless like weight-loss products or pills for every vanity. It's basically email telemarketing without a do-not-call option, and there is no Tele-Zapper.

SPAM works like this, there are companies that scour the internet looking for email addresses. They then sell these addresses by the millions to people who sell things. In many cases these companies who offer the addresses for sale, often have the products to go with them. They charge naive and unknowing investors relatively small fees ($300-$400) per blast. It's basically a gamble. The bet is that if enough people get the offer, even if a small percentage buy, you will make money. They promise that the more you send the more you will make. So unwise investors seeking that once in a lifetime payday keep on doing it.

Noone's telling if it works or not. The Spammer companies claim it does but don't show data, The people who pay the Spammers don't divulge heir success (or lack thereof). But I doubt it. I have never bought anything from SPAM. I know what I need and when I need it, I go out and buy it. I am not fooled by impulse to buy anything sent via email. It am puzzled by how pervasive the sale of Viagra or it's generic alternative seems to be. I won't get into whether I personally have any interest in buying Viagra online or not, all I can say is that I think if you do, you would at least get a prescription from you Doctor just so you don't die trying.

But apparently there is huge demand for this stuff, because I and every other person I know keeps getting the emails. And there are millions of them being sent each and every day, clogging an already bursting internet with useless and often undeliverable trash.

You can block some of them with filters and Anti SPAM software, but it often removes real email too. Also you can create rules in your email tool looking for keywords such as "Viagra" but the senders bypass that with clever tricks like spelling Viagra as V i a g r a. It seems ingenuity is always one step ahead of the tools.

Legislation that outlaws SPAM seems to be the only way, but the bills that sponsor this have been stuck in congress for 5 years. Making it illegal is one thing but enforcing the law is another. And no one in Washington these days wants to fund another agency devoted to hunting down Chinese or East European spammers.

A relatively new idea to stop SPAM has recently been floated whereby you subscribe to a service whose job it is to verify that an email sent to you is in fact sent by a real person or not. You add your friends to a friends list, which automatically allows the email through. If someone not on your list sends you an email, the service will send them an email asking them to confirm they are a human (and not an automated message) by entering in the secret coded password that is a graphic (and therefore not able to be read by a machine, Yet!) and resending the message.

To me what is dubious about services like this is a couple of things, first, it takes a long time for an email to get to you, usually 2-3 days. Second it is only a matter of time before the machines recognize images. Third, every email sent requires 2 more to get to it's destination and thereby cloggin the internet even more. And finally, there is nothing to stop the viruses pretending to be someone on your Friends List from getting through! That plus $9.95 per month makes it not an option, at least for me.

So there isn't a lot of good news on the horizon. Some are talking about entirely re-engineering the way email works on the internet. That may be the best solution, but controlling something as free as email is always a moral problem.

For now, I'm on a Mac. I use a free Yahoo email account for my general stuff. A account (Awesome!) for my personal stuff. And on my website? Why my phone number of course!

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By Bruce Bahmani



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