Computer users in Britain can't tell the difference between a computer crash and a virus attack, according to a survey by antivirus firm McAfee.
Nearly half of us believe program and system crashes are the work of viruses and that viruses can even account for faulty internet connections.
The study shows that 45 percent of those polled were likely to blame a program crash on a virus rather than the operating system. Nearly as many believe that a so-called blue screen of death, the fabled BSOD, is also indicative of a virus infection.
Frozen screens and lack of internet access where thought to be the result of malicious code by one in three and one in eight respectively.
"High-profile viruses like Code RED understandably trigger massive panic among home PC users who very often have little idea what sort of threat they face," explained Nick Bowman, McAfee's European marketing manager. "Viruses are a very real threat but if people take the proper precautions then they have a lot less to worry about."
Once people think they have a virus, the majority react "wholly inappropriately" by McAfee’s standards — a quarter simply panic and 12 percent email all their friends to warn them.
The survey also reveals that two thirds of users fail to understand the threat of a virus, with one third exaggerating the risk and the other third underestimating it.
This lack of understanding has been blamed, in part, on the antivirus companies themselves. After all, the less someone understands about viruses and the more scared they are of them, the more likely they are to purchase antivirus software.
But though many think the solution to virus hysteria lies in user education, Rob Rosenberger, editor of Vmyths (www.vmyths.com) disagrees. "User education attacks the symptoms of hysteria without addressing the root causes. I think we should first take on the media's fetish for juicy virus stories."
PC Advisor has generally avoided hyping virus stories, but when we recently asked whether you'd rather read them or bin them, PCAdvisor.co.uk forum contributors overwhelmingly said they wanted more stories about virus alerts.
Rosenberg breaks the sources of virus hysteria into four areas — media feeding frenzies, hackers' egos, antivirus vendors' need for publicity and governments looking to get increased security budgets.