Michelangelo Virus Is Alive and Virulent, Waiting for March 6

LAWRENCE J. MAGID is a Silicon Valley-based computer analyst and writer

Were he alive today, Michelangelo would be 517 years old on March 6. But before you plan your celebration, be aware that it's also the day that a pernicious computer virus could destroy the data on your PC's hard disk.

The Michelangelo virus, which will irrevocably erase all the data and software from any infected system, is the latest in a surge of viruses to target computer systems.

Fortunately, there are some easy to use and inexpensive programs that will detect and remove it and other viruses.

There are several ways that a virus can enter your computer. You can get them from other people's floppy disks or from programs that you download from a dial-up computer bulletin board. Viruses can also be transmitted over local area networks that companies use to connect their PCs. A survey by Dataquest and the National Computer Security Assn. revealed that 63% of corporate PC sites have encountered a virus.

Most viruses attach themselves to programs and are activated when the infected program is run. What happens next depends on the virus. Some just display a message. Others slow down your system or multiply themselves, taking up valuable disk space. Some delete one or more files. The worst ones destroy all the data on your disks.

Michelangelo is known as a "boot sector infector." It's not carried by programs but is spread by floppy disks. It attaches itself to the area of the disk that is read when the computer is "booted," or started.

You can catch the virus if you boot or turn on the computer while an infected floppy is in the A drive. You can't get the Michelangelo virus from programs that you download from computer bulletin boards or online services.

Although most software companies scan their disks for potential viruses, it's possible, though unlikely, to get a virus from a commercial program. Computer maker LeadingEdge reported that it had inadvertently sent out 500 machines with Michelangelo on the hard disk.

The virus could already be lurking in your PC's memory. When you start an infected computer, Michelangelo copies itself into memory where, on any day other than March 6, it sits quietly occupying about 2 kilobytes of RAM. On March 6, the virus overwrites the infected hard disk with garbage data.

Chances are you're not infected, but you never know. I found the virus on my machine. Considering the consequences, I recommend that you take precautions.

You could avoid the issue by simply not turning on your computer on March 6. Or you could start it on March 5 and leave it running until the March 7. Alternatively, you could change the system clock (using the DOS date command) to March 7.

But there is a much better solution.

The best way to protect yourself from this and other viruses is to use one of the virus detection and elimination programs that scan your disks and memory to determine whether you have a virus. If so, the program will remove it from memory and from the disk. These programs can also help prevent an infection by scanning programs and disks.

Any of the reputable anti-virus programs will detect and remove Michelangelo and other known viruses. It's important that you have a recent version.

The Michelangelo virus wasn't discovered until April, 1991, so older versions of anti-virus programs won't do you any good.

The leading anti-virus programs include Norton AntiVirus 2.0 ($99 from Symantec, (800) 441-7234), Untouchable ($135 from Fifth Generation Systems, (800) 873-4384) and Dr. Solomon's Anti-Virus Tool kit ($149.95 from Ontrack, (800) 752-1333). All prices are suggested retail.

McAfee Associates at (408) 988-3832 publishes share-ware and commercial anti-virus software. Modem users can download the share-ware version from CompuServe and many computer bulletin board systems for no cost other than connect time or phone charges. Users are expected to pay a registration fee to the company.

Both Norton AntiVirus and Untouchable are easy to install and use. McAfee's programs are a little harder to use but are very reliable. To remain effective, the programs must be regularly updated. Each company distributes updates via disk and computer bulletin boards.

In response to the specific Michelangelo threat, Symantec is offering a free version of Norton AntiVirus that detects and removes the Michelangelo virus only.

It is not effective against any other virus. Modem users can download a copy from CompuServe or Symantec's bulletin board (408) 973-9598 or you can order a disk for $9 shipping and handling by calling (800) 343-4714, Ext. 707.

If all is well on March 7, you can breath a sigh of relief. But don't get too relaxed. The Jerusalem virus, which deletes infected programs when they are run, is scheduled to do its dirty deeds a week later on Friday the 13th.

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