Confident that their computer systems are prepared for the calendar rolling from '99 to '00, many companies have shifted their attention to another threat: the viruses expected to accompany the arrival of 2000.
Always wary of virus attacks, companies are especially leery of the allure of the new year's four-digit change. Their concern has been heightened for two reasons: Hackers can disguise viruses as Y2K fixes, easing entry into a computer network; and systems administrators might falsely attribute problems caused by the virus to Y2K concerns, potentially causing a panic.
"If they can be the guy that panicked people when their Y2K virus hit, then they can be a star," said Martin Morgan, information security director for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and president of the Baltimore chapter of the Information Systems Security Association.
BGE officials are using a program that scans for viruses at its system gateway. Allfirst Bank is warning employees not to open Y2K fixes that purport to be from America Online or Microsoft; those are likely frauds because neither company is in the anti-virus business. McCormick & Co. Inc., the Sparks-based spice giant, plans for its system to be shut down when the clock strikes midnight in every one of the world's 24 time zones.
"This is a very real issue," Morgan said. "This is not a prank."
The typical Y2K virus will trigger on or around Jan. 1. It might display a message about Y2K issues, reset the system clock or change programs to simulate a Y2K problem, or masquerade as a Y2K patch, according to Symantec Corp., a major computer security company.
Network Associates Inc., another anti-virus software maker, said it has discovered a dozen targeted attacks that are supposed to go off around the new year.
It anticipates a flurry of attempts to create viruses through Jan. 15. "We're calling it the Super Bowl of virus writers," said Sal Viveros, group manager for McAfee Total Virus Defense at Network Associates.
The stakes for business are high and growing. In the first half of 1999, companies and home computer users experienced about $7.6 billion in damage as a result of viruses, compared with $1.5 billion in the first half of last year, according to Computer Economics, an Internet technology research firm.
Two of the Y2K viruses that have received the most attention so far are the W.32.Mypics.Worm and W95.Babylonia. The first virus is received as an e-mail attachment disguised as a picture. Once opened, it is programmed to change home page settings to pornographic sites and wipe out hard drives when the new year begins.
Like a Trojan horse, the second virus, known as Babylonia, poses as a Y2K fix. Once it's executed, the virus waits until a personal computer is connected to the Internet. Then, it downloads several files from a Web site in Japan that could wipe out a hard drive.
For all the mischief so far, no one is sure how systems will be affected around the new year. "Anybody who says they know is lying," said Mark D. Rasch, a former federal prosecutor who works as a lawyer for Reston, Va.-based Global Integrity. He said writing viruses "is a solitary activity. Anybody can do it. The question is how well."
Some experts say the federal conviction this month of David Smith in the "Melissa" virus case might deter some writers from creating Y2K viruses. Melissa, which arrived at thousands of e-mail systems disguised as a message from a friend or colleague, caused computers to send infected messages that flooded e-mail systems at government agencies and companies. Smith faces a federal sentence of up to five years.
The motivation of virus writers can range from pranksterism, where their damage is akin to graffiti artists; to extortion, where they shake down companies with threats of shutting down their systems, computer security experts say.
Whatever their reasons, virus writers seek to gain the respect of peers with their work, said Andy Kyte, a research director for the Gartner Group. "Realistically, what they are trying to do is gain reputation," he said.
The typical virus writer is a male between about 17 and 25. While virus writers seek to remain anonymous in chat rooms and Web sites, they are very often public about what they are trying to do. "We have an activity which is essentially criminal," he said. "In a way, it's like going into your local restaurant and hearing people plan a bank robbery."
What computer experts fear is virus writers will view hype from Y2K -- from terrorism to fears of flying to power shortages -- as the biggest stage they will ever have. "It's a natural trigger point," said Rasch of Global Integrity. "A lot are going to be thinking, `If you're going to make something bad happen, make it happen then.' "
The prize for some writers will be simulation of a big Y2K problem that eventually gets unveiled as their creation. "It's their chance at 15 minutes of fame," said Viveros of McAfee.