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This chapter is from the book

Not What I Say, But What I Do

Although virus protection is an important and necessary weapon in the arsenal to defend against email attacks, it's easy to become too reliant on it. When a suspicious file doesn't trigger a virus alert, the file doesn't magically become less suspicious. Yet many people trust the file because virus protection found no problem with it. With the number of new viruses and strains being released, you might face a virus at some point that your virus protection software doesn't yet know about. Recognizing the symptoms of viruses and following safe computing practices, regardless of what virus protection indicates, can help reduce your risk of serious infection.

Case Study 3-7

Judy was a technician at a computer store. Her job description basically entailed fixing everything people did to their computers. Just last week, she had removed three Legos and a stick of gum that an ingenious two-year-old had managed to cram inside a floppy disk drive.

Judy looked at the computer in front of her. The sheet on top said that the user was having a hard drive problem. Judy grabbed some disks off the shelf that she used for diagnosing hard disk failures. About 30 minutes later, she had fixed the bad sectors and began running the company diagnostic software on the machine. Basically, this software did a quick check of everything before a machine was sent back to the customer.

Everything came back fine except the printer port. The computer was having problems accessing the printer, but the user hadn't complained about the problem. Strangely, this computer was the third one to exhibit the same problem that week.

How the Attack Works

One drawback to virus protection software is relying too much on the software to tell you when something is wrong. I remember my parents telling me that I should learn to do the math myself rather than rely solely on a calculator. Reliance on antivirus tools is similar because many people forgo common sense if their antivirus tool isn't warning them of any problem.

Just because antivirus alarms aren't going off doesn't necessarily mean that a virus has been eliminated as the culprit of a problem. Antivirus tools are always a step behind virus creators because they rely on producing signatures to find the virus and users updating their system with the latest signatures. Instead of relying solely on virus protection tools, using them along with sound methods for dealing with files is a much better approach.


At one of my first computer jobs, we had a problem very similar to what Judy noticed. We ended up getting a floppy disk infected with a virus that wasn't yet known to any antivirus tools. This particular virus was a boot sector virus, which means the virus loads itself into the area of the disk that's read whenever a disk is inserted into the computer. When the infected disk is inserted into a computer, it immediately infects the system. If a floppy disk is inserted into an infected computer, the floppy disk becomes infected.

Although we routinely ran virus protection software, because the software hadn't detected a problem, we sometimes ran things a little more loosely than we should have. For example, some diagnostic disks weren't write-protected. We had scanned the computer for viruses first, so it didn't seem as important to write-protect the disks that were put in later.

As soon as a computer was infected with the virus, one symptom was that the printer port became disabled. At first, it just seemed odd that several users' printer ports had stopped working. At that point, I don't think I'd ever seen a printer port fail, and yet in three weeks, I had seen several. Then I had a breakthrough.

Unfortunately, as with many breakthroughs, things got worse before they got better. I ended up inserting one of the infected disks into the computer I used to print the report on what had been fixed. Suddenly, I couldn't print my reports. It wasn't exactly a "Eureka!" moment, but it had the same impact. I realized that something was going on that had nothing to do with a few broken printer ports.

We ended up booting off a clean, write-protected bootup disk. When we did this, the printer started working again. When we booted up from the hard disk, the printer port wasn't functional. With this simple test, we ended up confirming that a virus was at work and provided a useable, although temporary, workaround. Within a few weeks, the virus had been identified and included in the virus protection software, and we were able to expunge this annoyance from the company's systems.

Luckily for my company, this problem happened more than 10 years ago, and our customers were loyal. In today's environment, our company would probably have been sued over infecting our customers' computers and not having the proper processes to prevent it. Protection against viruses is important for everyone, whether in a home or corporate environment. However, when you're in a position of trust, the responsibility that goes with that position means you must consider the security of the computers in your care.

An Ounce of Prevention

The important lesson here is not to rely too much on tools, but to make sure you use common sense as well. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, don't believe it's a cow just because a tool says it is. You don't want to fall into a virus-behind-every-bush mentality, but if everything is screaming "virus," act as though your system is infected until you learn otherwise. In this case, assuming "guilty until proven innocent" could keep you from spreading a virus any further. If it turns out the problem isn't virus related, you're none the worse for wear.

At the same time, make sure your virus protection is up to date and running. You don't want to run the risk of your antivirus tool telling you there's no virus simply because you haven't updated its information. By keeping antivirus protection up to date, you'll be able to confirm whether you have a problem if the software detects that you're infected with a new virus or variant.

A Pound of Cure

If you have been infected with a virus that's not being detected with the latest updates, don't be afraid to bring in some outside help. For a company computer, you might have resources who have more extensive experience in dealing with computer viruses. For a home PC, see whether a local repair shop has a technician who has gone through this before and can provide assistance.

Avoid taking any drastic measures unless you have determined that the problem is definitely virus related. Reformatting your computer and starting over will remove a virus from your system. However, if it has infected your disks or backups, when you reinstall your software and data, you'll be right back where you started. If you don't have good backups, you run the risk of losing your data and having to reinstall and configure all your software. That outcome is probably as bad as the damage a virus could have caused.

Finally, if it seems you have been infected with a new virus or a new variant, contact the company that makes your virus protection software. User reports are a major way that companies find out about new variants, when they're first reported as being "in the wild." These companies might be able to help you determine whether this virus is something new or one they're currently building a signature for.


  • Don't rely solely on automated tools. Common sense is an effective tool, if you use it.

  • Keeping up to date with virus protection is still important.

  • Avoid taking drastic steps such as reformatting unless the problem is definitely virus related.

  • Use outside help, such as a computer technician, to make sure the problem isn't a simple hardware or software failure.

  • If it seems you have a virus that your virus protection doesn't detect, contact the company that makes your virus protection software. You might have a new virus or a new variant.

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