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Mostly harmless

Viruses up but most are harmless, say experts

The prevalent threat of viruses has curtailed the growth of e-commerce and has been blamed for spreading unnecessary fear among computer users. Experts are now saying that people should be careful not to get wrapped up in the hype.

Each year, market-leading antivirus firm McAfee receives about 60,000 virus reports. Another antivirus firm, Sophos, has seen a growth of about 20 percent per month from last year, receiving around 1,200 each month.

But only a small minority — about four percent — of these reported viruses actually causes damage.

"It is easier than you imagine to write a virus," said Graham Cluely, senior technology consultant at Sophos, adding that only a small minority of people can be bothered wasting their time to do so.

"Although scaremongering may have encouraged some people to install security patches, on the whole it just damages the credibility of people in the antivirus industry."

McAfee's antivirus expert Jack Clark agrees: "We attack every virus that is sent to us, but [scaremongering] and dead ends waste time when we could be fighting real viruses."

Until March this year viruses were designed to attack a specific application or operating system (generally Windows, with sparse attacks on Linux). These viruses accessed the computer through a vulnerable spot.

But viruses have moved on and this, Cluely thinks, is what made Nimda — perhaps the biggest virus of this year — such a major problem.

There has also been a major growth in trojan horses such as Love Letter and Kournikova. Unlike viruses, trojan horses do not copy themselves from computer to computer. Instead, they rely on the user passing them on through floppy disk or via email.

So what real threat do these viruses pose and what does the future hold?

"Viruses do cause problems, least of all the millions they cost companies to fix them," said McAfee's Clark. "But most are harmless, patches are available for those that aren't within days of [detection] and, as long as people are careful about using their PC, most can be avoided."

The message is the same from Sophos. "It's like buying a car, if you want to get the most out of it you need to learn how to use it. If people are careful most of these viruses can be avoided," said Cluely.

Cluely predicts a rise in remote access and backdoor trojans. These are designed to take advantage of the growth in internet use, as well as a rise in code red-style virus which go straight for the server.

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