Copycat virus follows quickly on Melissa's heels
March 29, 1999
(IDG) -- Network Associates has discovered an e-mail virus similar to the Melissa virus that company officials said they believe is even more dangerous than its predecessor.
Dubbed Papa, the new virus is an Excel virus that sends itself in the same manner as Melissa, but sends itself to the first 60 people in a user's address book compared to 50 with Melissa. In addition, Papa sends an e-mail out every time the virus is activated. Melissa only sends the message the first time it is opened.
This time the subject line claims the message is from "all.net and Fred Cohen." The body of the e-mail, which contains an attached document titled "path.xls," then instructs the user not to disable the macros, which is how the virus is activated.
According to Sal Viveros, group marketing manager for total virus defense at Network Associates, the most disruptive aspect of Papa is the fact that it "pings" an as-yet-undetermined external site to make sure there is an available Internet connection. The practice of pinging is not unusual, but Papa pings so many times that it brings the network down.
The biggest concern from a corporate security standpoint is that any document infected with the virus and then e-mailed to another party is distributed in the same way the Melissa virus is, leaving companies vulnerable to having confidential documents distributed unknowingly.
Viveros believes Papa was written by a different person than the author of Melissa, but that it uses the original virus as a road map. This practice of using similar mechanisms to deliver more destructive payloads is not unusual, noted Viveros, which could mean a string of such similar viruses could be on the way. Variants, however, should be less disruptive because virus-detection vendors know what they are looking for. Network Associates expects to post software for detection and cleaning of the Papa virus by Monday afternoon.
The Melissa virus first sprang up in countless e-mail inboxes around the world on Friday, replicating itself to end-user address books and sending an exhaustive list of pornographic Web sites to everyone therein.
According to Viveros, Melissa is the widest spreading virus he has ever seen, hitting approximately 80 percent of Network Associates' major customers, which amounts to almost 100 companies. A significant number of those were forced to take their e-mail systems down.
The Melissa virus hampered -- and in some cases entirely shut down -- e-mail systems for companies the world over. Microsoft, for example, put a halt to all outgoing e-mails throughout the company on Friday to guard against spreading the virus.
At risk are Microsoft Exchange Servers running Microsoft Outlook. With an ever-changing subject heading of "Important Message From [end-user name]," the attachment to the e-mail is a document entitled "list.doc" with a body of text stating, "Here is that document you asked for ... don't show anyone else ;-)."
Upon opening the attachment, Microsoft Word 97 will ask if you want to disable the macros, to which you should reply yes, or the e-mail will automatically be sent to the first fifty names on each company mailing list.
"If you don't disable the macros, the virus resends itself to everyone in [your] address list," said John Berard, a spokesman for Fleishman Hillard, which was infected by the virus and inadvertently spread it around.
In addition, the virus automatically changes the security settings of an infected system to the lowest possible setting, a slick move that has IT managers wondering if they will have to manually reset every infected PC in their enterprise.
Dan Schrader, director of product marketing at anti-virus software maker Trend Micro, said the virus is easy to detect and not destructive in nature. But it can cause serious bandwidth constraints and contains several quirky characteristics.
One of those is a hidden message from the popular TV series "The Simpsons" that is inserted into any open documents whenever the date and the time - 2:29 on the 29th for instance - match.
A fix for the Melissa virus is now available from most major anti-virus software vendors.
Michael Lattig (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an InfoWorld reporter. Dan Briody (email@example.com)is InfoWorld's Client/Server editor.
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