Man charged with unleashing 'Melissa' computer virus
April 2, 1999
TRENTON, New Jersey (CNN) -- A 30-year-old man launched the e-mail computer virus known as "Melissa" just to see if it would work, state and federal authorities alleged Friday.
David L. Smith was arrested Thursday night by New Jersey state police and was released on $100,000 bail Friday, state Attorney General Peter Verniero said. His office said the virus was named after a topless dancer from Florida.
The virus caused infected computers to fire off dozens of messages to friends and colleagues, temporarily clogging e-mail systems.
"It is supposed on this part that the motive was to see if he could achieve what he did achieve," Verniero said.
A tip from an America Online lawyer led investigators to Smith, Verniero said. Authorities said Smith pirated an AOL user's account to launch the virus from his apartment.
"With that information, we were in a position to identify specific places where access was gained to the Internet," New Jersey Deputy Attorney General Christopher Bubb said. "From there, we were able to trace it back to a specific telephone line."
Smith, a network programmer for an unidentified company, was being held at the Monmouth County Jail. He was charged with interrupting and conspiracy to interrupt public communication and with attempts to commit those offenses.
Interfering with public communication carries a sentence of five to 10 years in prison and up to a $150,000 fine, Verniero said. Smith also is charged with theft of computer services.
A winking smiley face
Melissa appeared on March 26, a Friday, and spread rapidly around the world over the weekend, swamping the e-mail systems of thousands of computers -- including those at government agencies.
Several anti-virus software makers posted patches on their Web sites that detect and reject the Melissa virus.
It came in the form of an e-mail, usually containing the subject line "Important Message," and appeared to be from a friend or colleague.
The body of the e-mail message said, "Here is that document you asked for ... don't show it to anyone else" with a winking smiley face formed by the punctuation marks ;-).
Attached to the message was a document file. If the user opened that file, the virus dug into the user's address book and sent infected documents to the first 50 addresses.
A 'consumer crime'
Verniero described the Melissa virus as a "consumer crime."
"This is the kind of virus that could wreak havoc on state government, federal government and private users," he said. "It tampers with everyday consumers and their personal lives."
New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman praised state authorities' cooperation with the FBI. Their work together, Whitman said, "has literally, we believe, avoided the spread of this very malicious virus to personal computers throughout ... the world."
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Federal Bureau of Investigation
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