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Recent flurry of virus activity causes huge headaches for Mississippi businesses.

My inbox runneth over

You upgrade your virus software regularly. You don’t open e-mail attachments from people you don’t know. But just when you thought that you were safe, along comes a variation of the Sobig virus.

In this case, even people who didn’t get the virus still had to contend with being bombarded by a large number of virus e-mails and related warnings. Gotcha.

While the Magnolia State escaped the power blackout that severely disrupted businesses in the Northeast, Midwest and parts of Canada, many of the state’s businesses took a major productivity hit from the recent spate of virus activity. The virus variant Sobig.F was considered one of the most virulent mass-mailing viruses ever. The program sent millions of virus-carrying emails across the Internet and is estimated to have infected hundreds of thousands of computers.

The MS blaster worm virus also caused widespread misery in recent weeks.

“We did see customers who did not have appropriately patched networks and upgraded virus definitions,” said Greg Hayman, president Leland-based TecInfo. “They had a lot of problems. We provide a service that protects customers from viruses through Internet protection. Viruses of e-mail network will typically be stopped. We also have another service that provides security patch updates through a local area network to make sure that all machines have the patches to prevent these worm-type infestations from taking on a life of their own.”

Residential customers don’t have to pay for the service. Hayman said residential accounts have standards protection so customers aren’t put in the position of having this kind of problem. Business customers are charged a small fee for the protection, which can also include blocking spam messages and messages with inappropriate language content.

“We run two virus protection products on our network that all e-mail is filtered through before it is sent to customers who purchase that service,” Hayman said. “This service helps from not only from the network standpoint, but also from the legal perspective as far as making sure companies are making the effort to protect employees from e-mail spam that is inappropriate.”

Hayman said spam is something that probably can never be filtered 100% effectively because spammers keep modifying messages to trick people into opening the e-mails.

Spam can be a huge waste of time for businesses, even ISPs. TecInfo experienced an 80% decrease in internal support needed after installing spam filters.

“We were able to spend the 80% time we were losing on our customers,” Hayman said. “I believe it can save a great deal of time.”

Hayman strongly advocates the virus filters as one of the best investments a business connected to the Internet can make.

“When you buy products like these, the return on the investment is really good because you spend way, way, way beyond what the products cost just to clean up an infestation,” Hayman said. “That is above the cost of any lost data or business as a result of a computer virus.”

While some companies do virus checking for free, Hayman said those products typically only scan the body of an e-mail, and can miss viruses imbedded in attachments.

Tommy Dorsey, network manager of Cybergate Inc. in Laurel, said some people don’t realize the importance of routinely upgrading virus protection. Some people got the recent viruses because of failure to update regularly.

“Most residential customers, if they were not updated within the past few days, were immediately susceptible,” Dorsey said. “But our e-mail server has a virus scanner, so it didn’t go through.”

BellSouth regional manager Michael Walker said the company encourages its BellSouth.net customers to have anti-virus software and schedule it for live updates regularly.

Although BellSouth identified worms as part of its internal network and was taking steps to isolate and eradicate the worm, Walker said external communications networks had not been affected and were safe for customers to use.

“This includes both our voice/data network and the BellSouth Internet Services network,” Walker said.

Dorsey said when customers are shopping for ISPs, virus scanning protection is something they should ask about. And if their ISP doesn’t have virus protection, he recommends taking particular care to make sure virus scanning software is kept up to date.

Both scanning at the mail server and individual computers is the best policy, Dorsey said.

“That Sobig virus spread around the planet rapidly,” Dorsey said. “It was fast. It was big. I heard it choked up a lot of mail servers that handle millions of people just because of the sheer volume. There were potentially thousands of e-mails sent per person who was infected. It could choke up a network pretty quick.”

Eric Gibens, president and CEO RedMagnet in Tupelo, said the recent spate of virus activity ought to make people pay more attention to purchasing anti-virus software, and keeping it updated.

“Obviously, if you don’t update your anti-virus software, it becomes ineffective,” Gibens said. “If it is a home machine and you get a virus, you are inconvenienced but it isn’t costing you money. If it’s a business that relies on technology to function property, we recommend updating the virus software at least once a week. Even then you have a period after the virus comes out before a fix or block for it is in place. So even if you are updating weekly, there is still some vulnerability there.”

RedMagnet also provides virus protection through its mail servers. But while customers never receive a lot of the messages that come through their system, viruses are tough-to-stop.

“Customers can get very frustrated,” Gibens said. “Just taking a virus off a home machine can cost $100 to $200 in out of pocket expenses.”

Some customers may feel they have been betrayed by technology.

“A computer today has become so incorporated in our lives, when it fails it is almost as bad as the power going off,” Gibens said. “We use the computer now as much as we use the telephone. Pretty much today when the computer stops running, business stops running. It has become a necessary tool to function. We have some customers whose business structure is so based on computers that when the computer goes down, they are out of business until it is corrected.”

Gibens recommended that customers who want to stop getting so much spam either consider a spam blocker from their ISP or free spam blockers that can be found at sites such as www.cloudmark.com. There are paid and free spam blockers available.

“The free version has worked fine for me,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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