Love bug bites computer users around world

`ILOVEYOU' virus disguised as e-mail paralyzes systems

`It's far from innocent'

May 05, 2000|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Hundreds of corporate, government and university computers were bitten by the "love bug," a fast-spreading Internet virus disguised as an electronic love letter that paralyzed systems around the globe yesterday and left millions of computer users without e-mail.

The victims included members of the U.S. Senate and Britain's Parliament, the Pentagon, the Social Security Administration, the Central Intelligence Agency, Ford Motor Co., AT&T and an unknown number of smaller companies.

By noon, computer security experts at CERT, the government-funded agency that tracks these outbreaks, had logged more than 180 cases of the virus, affecting more than 270,000 computers across the United States.

"The reports are mounting fast," said manager Kathy Fithen.

Because it struck before the United States workday began, fallout from the virus may have been less severe than it could have been, security experts said.

The attack occurred slightly more than a year after the Melissa virus crippled more than 1.2 million computers across the country and caused $80 million in damage.

The FBI has begun an investigation to find the person responsible for the virus, which is believed to have originated Wednesday in Asia.

In the United States, it is a federal crime to send destructive computer viruses.

Computer security experts believe the e-mail virus swept across Europe within hours. In Britain, 30 percent of company e-mail systems were crippled, while in Sweden, estimates ranged as high as 80 percent, according to the computer security firm Network Associates.

Anti-virus experts marveled at how fast the virus spread, attributing the love bug's success to brilliant marketing as much as technology.

"You're getting a love letter," said Patrick Martin, a manager at the Symantec Corp.'s AntiVirus Research Center in Santa Monica, Calif. "How innocent could it sound? Only in this case it's far from innocent."

The love bug arrived inside an e-mail bearing the seductive subject line, "ILOVEYOU."

Inside was an attached file labeled, `LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.TXT.vbs." Double-clicking the file launched the virus, which was written in a Microsoft programming language called VBScript.

Like the Melissa virus, the love bug targets users of Microsoft Outlook, a popular e-mail program on Windows-based PCs, and is designed to send a copy of itself to everyone in the user's Outlook address book.

While it does not spread itself on machines using other e-mail software, it can damage popular music and picture files on any Windows-based computer. It also can attack files on networks to which the user is connected.

The love bug does not attack Macintosh or Unix computers, although they can spread it by forwarding virus-laden messages to others.

Virus fighters at Symantec, which publishes the popular Norton AntiVirus program, got word of the attack from their research stations in the Netherlands about 4 a.m. EDT and concocted a fix several hours later.

The software is posted on the company's Web site, www.symantec.comavcenter. Other anti-virus companies followed suit.

Experts advised computer users to delete "love bug" messages without opening them and contact the publishers of their anti-virus software for updates.

Many large corporations and government agencies shut down their e-mail servers, either to prevent the virus from spreading or to mop up the damage.

"Lots of love at BGE today," said Jessica Atwood, a spokesman for the utility, which shut down its electronic post office as a precautionary measure when the virus popped up in many of its 6,000 staff mailboxes. She said the shutdown did not affect customers or the daily grind for most employees.

The e-mail system serving 11,000 government and contract employees at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt was shut down for six hours as word of the virus spread. Warnings were posted on electronic signs at Goddard's security gates, on the agency's internal computer home page, and in voice-mail messages sent to all employees.

Ford Motor Co. shut down e-mail for 100,000 employees worldwide, while AT&T shut down a system serving 145,700 employees.

Members of Congress reported finding the love bug in their mailboxes. The Social Security Administration shut down the e-mail system for its 65,000 employees.

Many of the first users to spot the virus were perplexed.

Dennis O'Shea, spokesman for the Johns Hopkins University, said he knew something wasn't right when he turned on his computer and saw a love letter from the office of university President William R. Brody.

Dick Atlee, a computer help desk technician at the University of Maryland, College Park, was surprised to wake up to find one from a campus police officer.

"I don't know him, much as I appreciate his affection, so I became immediately suspicious," Atlee told his clients in an e-mail warning them about the virus.

More than 50,000 computer viruses are in circulation around the world, experts say, and few virus writers are caught.

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