Computer users across the state are bracing for Friday, when the "Michelangelo" computer virus -- so named because March 6 is the birthday of the great Renaissance artist -- is expected to hit.
An informal poll of area companies found that most already use some type of anti-virus software, which is a program that constantly hunts for viruses, "Trojan horses" -- programs with a hidden, destructive function -- and other electronic troublemakers.
But most respondents also said they are keeping a watchful eye on their systems in anticipation of the dreaded Michelangelo virus.
Some viruses allow users to retrieve or reconstruct files later.
But not Michelangelo. It causes disks to automatically reformat themselves when machines are turned on, permanently erasing files in the process.
It is this characteristic that has earned Michelangelo a reputation as one of the nastier viruses in the computer world.
Like most major companies polled, Hunt Valley-based McCormick Spice Co. routinely uses anti-virus software to guard against infections in its 20,000 personal computers. But John "Jack" Thompson, vice president of information systems for McCormick, said the company isn't taking any chances with Michelangelo.
"We've put out a voice mail to all operating units to make sure they are aware of March 6 with instructions on how to avoid the problem," Mr. Thompson said. "At the moment, the easiest thing to do is to change the [computer calendar] date."
Likewise, Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., Baltimore Gas Electric Co., and the Social Security Administration say they routinely runs anti-virus software to safeguard the health of their personal computers.
Dave Pacholczyk, a C&P spokesman in Baltimore, said the company is relying on existing anti-virus programs to take care of the Michelangelo threat.
But he said offices are being reminded of the impending March 6 virus, just in case anybody forgot.
"We are reminding people that these [anti-virus] scanning programs are available -- and that they should remember to use it," he said.
Ditto for Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, both of which have used virus detection software for years, according to spokesmen.
For added peace of mind, the University of Maryland has invited computer users across the College Park campus to bring in their diskettes for a routine virus check-up.
Once the software has been checked out and given a clean bill of health, users are given protection software to guard against future infections.
"We're not conducting room-to-room searches [looking for Michelangelo] because we don't have the manpower for that, but we're doing what we can with what we've got," said Richard Ogata, a technical consultant for the university's Computer Science Center.
Jetics Inc., of Vienna, Va., an authorized agent for McAfee software, a popular anti-virus software program, has been deluged with calls over the past few days, most directly related to the Renaissance virus, said Wayne Carpenter, Jetic president.
"We are recommending to people to get some anti-virus software, get McAfee if you want, but get something that will get rid of viruses and check your hard disks," Mr. Carpenter said.
Computer users shouldn't plan to breathe too easy after March 6.
That's because an equally destructive virus, dubbed the "Jerusalem" virus because many believe that is where it originated, is slated to hit exactly one week later -- on Friday, March 13.