Phishing and Social Engineering

While you may be taking steps to protect your computer from becoming infected by a virus, you may very well run into another, more insidious type of attack. Phishing and other social engineering attacks have been on the rise. Social engineering is a fancy term for someone trying to get you to give up your personal information -- online or in person -- so they can use it to steal from you. Anti-spam traps may catch e-mail messages coming from phishers, but the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team says the best way for you to beat them at their own game is to be wary. And never give out your personal or financial information online.

E-mail Viruses

Virus authors adapted to the changing computing environment by creating the e-mail virus. For example, the Melissa virus in March 1999 was spectacular in its attack. Melissa spread in Microsoft Word documents sent via e-mail, and it worked like this:

Someone created the virus as a Word document and uploaded it to an Internet newsgroup. Anyone who downloaded the document and opened it would trigger the virus. The virus would then send the document (and therefore itself) in an e-mail message to the first 50 people in the person's address book. The e-mail message contained a friendly note that included the person's name, so the recipient would open the document, thinking it was harmless. The virus would then create 50 new messages from the recipient's machine. At that rate, the Melissa virus quickly became the fastest-spreading virus anyone had seen at the time. As mentioned earlier, it forced a number of large companies to shut down their e-mail systems to control the spread.

The ILOVEYOU virus, which appeared on May 4, 2000, was even simpler. It contained a piece of code as an attachment. People who double-clicked on the attachment launched the code. It then sent copies of itself to everyone in the victim's address book and started corrupting files on the victim's machine. This is as simple as a virus can get. It is really more of a Trojan horse distributed by e-mail than it is a virus.

The Melissa virus took advantage of the programming language built into Microsoft Word called VBA, or Visual Basic for Applications. It is a complete programming language and it can be used to write programs that do things like modify files and send e-mail messages. It also has a useful but dangerous auto-execute feature. A programmer can insert a program into a document that runs instantly whenever the document is opened. This is how the Melissa virus was programmed. Anyone who opened a document infected with Melissa would immediately activate the virus. It would send the 50 e-mails, and then infect a central file called NORMAL.DOT so that any file saved later would also contain the virus. It created a huge mess.

Microsoft applications have a feature called Macro Virus Protection built into them to prevent this sort of virus. With Macro Virus Protection turned on (the default option is ON), the auto-execute feature is disabled. So, when a document tries to auto-execute viral code, a dialog pops up warning the user. Unfortunately, many people don't know what macros or macro viruses are, and when they see the dialog they ignore it, so the virus runs anyway. Many other people turn off the protection mechanism. Because of this, the Melissa virus spread despite the safeguards in place to prevent it.

In the case of the ILOVEYOU virus, the whole thing was human-powered. If a person double-clicked on the program that came as an attachment, then the program ran and did its thing. What fueled this virus was the human willingness to double-click on the executable. The same kinds of exploits have also been passed over instant messaging networks like AIM and Windows Live Messenger. Commandeered accounts will send out links to viruses in instant messages; anyone who clicks the link and installs a Trojan application will have their own account hijacked and unwittingly spam their own friends with the compromising link.

Now that we've covered e-mail viruses, let's take a look at worms.