Tuesday, September 18, 2012

                My computer was infected with an email virus eight weeks ago.  Since I’ve always been one for making proper backups of my data (cough, cough), I thought, smugly, that it was no big deal.  It was inconvenient that I would have to reload some programs; but all in all, I’ve been lucky, and have never lost anything major to a virus before.  It amazed me the amount of damage that little beastie wrought on my computer, and business network, in less than the blink of an eye.  For those of you new to the email arena, or with the latest and greatest anti-virus software and hardware, or even of veteran computer guru stature, I have a warning:  you are under attack!
                Here’s a laymen’s background about computer viruses.  They are tiny programs that are designed to do specific things to your computer, namely bad things.  No, duh?  I guess the best way to say it is they cause damage to files and memory.  Who cares about the particulars, or that there are several types of viruses?  The fact is they mess up computers.
If you believe you are completely protected by anti-virus programs, think again.  Just yesterday my latest version of Norton Antivirus 2002 caught, contained and deleted seven – count ‘em – seven infected emails!  These emails came from unrelated sites, probably written by wiry male teenagers with spiked purple hairdos.  Or, perhaps they came from al-Qaidah computer specialists as part of a plot to destroy our communications (think I’m joking?).
Unfortunately for me, this same version of Norton caught and supposedly “contained” the One Virus (my label for it) eight weeks ago.  I researched information about the virus on Norton’s website, downloaded a program that would “disinfect” my system, that is, search out the virus wherever it was hidden or attached, and remove it safely.  [For the computer gurus:  we use a dialup connection with modem, which does not use a hardware firewall.  Yes, this is the most common and most unsafe way to browse the internet and get email.  Other options for internet connections are not available in our area yet, except for T1’s.  They’re too expensive for a small company wanting simply to check email.]
After following the prescription, I rebooted my computer.  The virus evidently went active at that point.  For the next several days, my machine made strange noises at odd times – a squeak, a cough, a hiccup, a door slam, a kiss, a hearty laugh, and probably others that I didn’t hear.  Even though I smacked the poor machine over the unsolicited kiss, it didn’t help.  The real violation was yet to come.
In the information I had downloaded from Norton, there was a line that said, “Warning:  this virus is network aware.”  I had long since disconnected my machine from our small business network, but evidently I was still too late.  After all, computers process information in nanoseconds, while I’m lucky if my brain runs in real time.  The virus had skipped to our server using my pathway to my folder on the server’s hard drive.
As the network administrator for my company, it fell on me to solve the myriad problems that descended upon us.  In hindsight, I believe the virus probably did no more than delete a bunch of executable files (.exe) that run our programs, with the exception of the originally infected machine.  It stopped rebooting after a while and nothing could be done for it.  I had to shoot it.
So, what’s the point of my horror story?  Protect yourself as best you can from computer viruses.  The cost is great.  Our expenses began with replacing a hard drive ($150).  This was deemed the safest way to make sure the virus was gone from the original machine.  Although a hard drive can be re-formatted and cleaned, the cost is about $80.  It was simpler, and nearly as cheap, to replace it.  I had to rebuild the programs and data anyway, which took several days of precious and expensive employee time.  The virus was insidious in that it was time-delayed, which meant my current backups were useless, since they could have been infected too.  I had to rebuild from alternate pre-virus backups instead of the latest masters.
Next came the cleansing of the network.  I had hoped to have been spared that task, but after a few days, it became apparent that critical files were missing within our accounting and Novell network software.  Logons stopped working and portions of our integrated software began doing strange things.  Printers went offline unexpectedly.  It took a total of seven hours over two weeks at the rate of $150/hour, and phone charges to California (where our custom software supplier resides), to re-install the missing portions of our accounting program on our server.
Our system fell like Dominos.  Each of the six machines had to be worked on in some shape or fashion.  Our employees sat by and twiddled thumbs for days because they couldn’t use their computers.  Between regular tasks, which interrupted the restore process and made it more stressful, I spent the eight weeks inside my head.  I now know that brains can swell to accommodate more usage, although brain casings do not.  Pressure, my friends, that’s what occurs when a company is brought to a standstill by an email virus -- that, and much money down the drain.  For us, we estimate more the $10K was lost in employee time, software and hardware replacements and rebuilds, not to mention premature gray hair now sprouting on the network administrator’s head.
Computers are not just machines anymore; they are the lifeblood of modernized industry.  Inoculate them with the latest virus protection updates, but be prepared for those viruses that have been designed with immunities.  They will cost you.  If you don’t believe it can happen, go ahead and open those emails from unfamiliar senders.  Make sure to skip backups of your important files.  Hey, why not just plug your expensive system directly into the wall jack without a surge protector too?  Live on the wild side of technology my friends, and eventually even you will be humbled.
MORAL:  Computers are the master; Man is the slave.

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