Costly Computer Gremlins Sneak Back

JUST as the computer industry thought it had licked those pesky computer viruses, the programs are showing up again in alarming numbers in businesses across America.

According to a survey released here yesterday, virtually all the 300 companies interviewed had experienced a virus, despite their efforts to stem the problem using virus-fighting software.

Viruses are man-made computer programs designed to make copies of themselves and to stealthily invade other desktop computers. Some viruses leave messages. Others purposely destroy data or trash computer disks.

"We thought it was leveling off," says Peter Tippett of the National Computer Security Association (NCSA), which sponsored the survey. Instead, almost overnight, the virus problem exploded again.

Such invasions carry heavy costs, the NCSA survey showed. Organizations that experienced a virus incident spent an average of 44 hours, 10 person-days of work, and $8,100 to fix the problem.

Of the companies surveyed, 98 percent reported encountering a virus. Last April, an organization could expect to encounter on average 1.5 viruses per 1,000 personal computers per month, the NCSA reported. Today, the likelihood of an encounter is about 10 viruses per 1,000 computers per month.

The major force behind the outbreak is the Word macro virus, discovered only last summer. During January and February, this self-replicating virus hit more than one-third of the survey's sites and was responsible for just under half of all virus encounters. The Word macro virus is not particularly destructive, but its growth poses questions about how a new class of malicious programs might be spread.

Unlike traditional viruses, which hop from computer to computer via diskettes, the Word macro virus can also spread via networks and even electronic mail. Using the best-selling Microsoft Word word-processing program as its cover, the virus can look like an innocuous data file.

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