They're a scourge upon our land. It's difficult not to catastrophesize the virus problem. Computer viruses, worms and other forms of malicious code have become so prevalent that the government, which typically acts only in response to disasters, has begun to act. One of the latest threats involves the release of viruses in e-mail attachments that, if you open them, tunnel their way into your e-mail address book. There they harvest the addresses they find and use them as both the To: and From: addresses of outgoing e-mail, propelling themselves out to an ever-widening circle of potential victims. Even if you've taken precautions by buying and keeping up-to-date anti-virus and firewall software, regularly patching Windows' security flaws using Windows Update and refusing to open e-mail attachment unless you've confirmed what they are, so long as your e-mail address is in the address book of someone not as vigilant, it will seem to others that the infected e-mails are coming from you. And if you haven't taken the precautions you should, you could be left with a hard disk without any data or programs. Or you could wind up with a huge telephone bill resulting from a virus "dialer" using your computer's modem to phone numerous long-distance numbers. Your computer's motherboard could even suffer damage. The situation has definitely reached crisis stage. One of the worst of the recent virus attacks, by the so-called Sobig.F virus, caused $29.7 billion of economic damage worldwide, according to mi2g, a digital risk-assessment company in London. Another new attack came in the form of a bombardment of e-mails purportedly from Microsoft offering patches or "critical updates," each infected with the Swen/Gibe.F worm. (Microsoft never sends out patches via e-mail.) Some people received hundreds of these infected e-mail messages a day. As with many recent attacks, much of the damage resulted from infected messages clogging e-mail in-boxes and e-mail servers and slowing corporate computer networks through the massive volume of e-mail traffic they engendered. It's not hyperbolic to say that the information economy itself is being threatened by the virus epidemic, undermining technology's productivity enhancements. Congress, reacting to the threat, recently held hearings to determine whether the Justice Department and FBI were doing enough to identify and prosecute the criminals responsible. The number of those caught so far can be counted on one hand. Virus writers use technology to cover their tracks. Virus writers have been found in the past only when they boast about their exploits afterward or carelessly leave a digital trail back to their PCs. Some virus writers do no more than follow the directions in a point-and-click virus-writing toolkit. Ultimately, you can't rely on the authorities or your Internet service provider for protection. The onus is on each of us. It's like having to put on a full-body anti-contamination suit before venturing outside. Fortunately, anti-virus software companies have been rising to the occasion. The leading vendor, Symantec, has just released the latest version of Norton AntiVirus, Version 2004, which you can buy for $50. Or you can buy it bundled with Norton Personal Firewall, Norton Privacy Control, Norton AntiSpam and Norton Parental Control as part of Norton Internet Security for $70. (The pro version substitutes Norton Productivity Control for Norton Parental Control, for limiting Web and Usenet access by employees.) There's money to be made here. With this latest version, Symantec has increased the annual cost to keep the programs updated beyond the first year from $15 to $20. On the other hand, the third-party anti-virus vendors may be severely hurt by Microsoft, which recently bought anti-virus technology from a Romanian company and will likely integrate it in future versions of Windows. You can obtain virus protection in other ways, from other full-featured programs such as McAfee VirusScan to free solutions. Grisoft's AVG Anti-Virus System Free Edition is the free but limited version of this Czech company's full-fledged program, though it's only for home or non-commercial use. Both Norton and McAfee let you run a free virus scan on your computer from their Web sites, though you need to run Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0 or later and you won't be able to repair virus-infected files without buying either program. It's crucial to keep up to date with whatever protection you're using. New viruses come out all the time, and virus writers and hackers are constantly figuring out ways to break through existing safeguards. There's a war going on, with technology battling technology. Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.