Virus Problems on the 'Net Are SoBig

"Hey -- is there a new virus out there?"

Last week I sent that email to the webmaster of TheBeehive.org, the site where I work. I pointed out the signs. I'd been getting lots of spam-type email (no surprise) with suspicious attachments (particularly the .pif extension).

By the afternoon, we knew there was a virus, or, more precisely, a worm. A worm culls all of the emails from the computer it's accessed (when you open the extension), and then uses them as both the To: and From: addresses for its attack. By now, hundreds of millions of emails generated by the latest worm, SoBig, have circulated the 'Net. I guesstimate that I've gotten 50 or so a day for the past five days. My worm alter-ego has also sent them out, judging by the bounced messages I got from computers that rejected emails using my address.

Avoiding viruses and worms has become a necessary survival tactic for the 58 percent of Americans who use the Internet. I altered my POP email download program to recognize certain phrases that the worm uses as a subject line. Please don't send me anything personal with "Your Application," "Thank You," or "Wicked Screensaver" as a header, 'cause that stuff's going straight in the trash.

Which brings me to the downside of all this mishegoss: it's turning the Web into the equivalent of a booby-trapped jungle, which people only enter if they're totally strapped and ready. Nobody who got an account to do online banking or get pictures of their grandchildren bargained that the 'Net would be such a swamp. My grandmother, God rest her soul, went online at the age of 82. Shortly thereafter she was solicited to buy Viagra and see nude Russian girls lick their daddies. But porn solicitations, at least for the moment, do not crash your hard drive. Under the assault of SoBig, sites from the BBC to small mom and pop shops were inaccessible. Other current viruses will flat out smash your hard drive, specifically if it's using Microsoft software.

This year, the number of people in the U.S. who stopped using the internet matched the number of people who started using it. Some lost access to a computer. Many more didn't like it or had technical problems. Theoretically, it's just fine not to be online. But living digitally is becoming more like credit cards. I remember the day that, outraged, one of my professors found he could not rent a car without a credit card. The same thing is happening with online transactions, but it's much sneakier.

Companies wear down consumers with 15-minute telephone wait periods before you reach a customer service representative. Sometimes it's the equivalent of a regressive tax, where people who can't book online or get e-tickets incur extra fees (as with airlines). One of the most ridiculous ploys came from United Airlines, which directed phone callers who could not get through to an actual human being, to a website offering a 5 percent discount on bookings. When not a single person is left in United's office to field complaints, the mission will be complete.

Part of my job at TheBeehive.org is creating content for low-income families. On the one hand, I want to tell them that life online is everything it has been promised -- a portal to more choice, more freedom, more self-expression. And the other part of me wants to send them a free bumpersticker: My Problems with the 'Net are SoBig!

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