The Internet has proved to be an ideal medium for spreading both viruses and virus scares. Currently going the rounds is Penpals Greetings. This hoax takes the form of a message usually headed 'Virus Alert'. The text warns of dire consequences for anyone attempting to read an email message entitled 'Penpal Greetings'. After breathlessly explaining how the alleged virus will damage both your own and the world's computers, it urges you to pass the message on to all your friends.
The Penpals warning started showing up in the US in November 1996. By December it was clear from newsgroup postings that it had made it into in UK organisations, and that some of them were panicking. The Penpals warning itself can be likened to a sort of virus, but one executing in 'wetware' - the fevered imagination of overanxious humans - rather than computers.
How can you tell that this message is a hoax? Apart from the internal evidence in the text itself - the generally crazed tone - the easiest way is to do a little browsing. Try visiting IBM's anti-virus resource at www.av.ibm.com, or the US Government Computer Incident Advisory Capability at http://ciac.llnl.gov.
For background information excellent less formal sites are www.kumite.com/myths, www.stiller.com and www.ot.com/~dmuth/virus. The Internet newsgroups comp.virus and alt.comp.virus are also worth checking out for the latest reactions of virus watchers.
The Penpals message is very similar to the Good Times hoax of two years ago, so it is surprising that anyone professionally involved in IT security took it seriously. But it seems that many did. There is a genuine worry here - if you can't spot a phoney threat like Penpals how likely is it that you'll take the correct measures to deal with a real one?
Fortunately the Internet can help out. Though it's great for spreading lies, truth can be found there too - if you take the trouble to look.
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