For security, send Valentines the old-fashioned way

Security experts are girding themselves for an onslaught of bad love.

Just about every portal and online consumer site is offering some kind of Valentine's Day promotion. Many, including VH1's "Download Your Love" and Excite@Home, are offering digital greetings services to let you show loved ones how much you care.

E-mail administrators prefer you send your valentines the old-fashioned way.

Whether it is mailboxes overloaded with otherwise harmless Valentines greetings or a malicious, Italian-language variant of the "ILoveYou" virus, vendors, analysts and e-mail administrators are reminding users to remember the lessons learned from the Melissa and (English version) "ILoveYou" worms.

Don't open attachments, even from friends and relatives, unless you know what they contain. Worms, for example, propagate by getting into the address book of the infected user and then sending themselves out to everyone in the address book, with the user none the wiser.

IT professionals in the Security Focus Virus discussion group have already picked up on some potential threats, notably, an attachment called valentine.exe.

Though discussion group members have determined that this attachment is harmless -- beyond the imagery of a hairy, overweight man doing a pole dance -- they are still blocking all or most .exe attachments, because those are the most likely to contain viruses.

Computer Associates has posted an advisory on the Italian Love Bug, whose header reads "C'e una cartolina per te!," which means, "Here's a postcard for you!"

The virus has done minimal damage according to antivirus software vendors, who report that few, if any, customers have been affected, according to the Sophos.com and Symantec Web sites.

"Trust is the Trojan horse of viruses," said analyst Robert Mahowald at research firm IDC. "Everybody needs to be on their guard."

While the threat of disastrous viral valentines may be real, the fear that they will create mass destruction to your computer is a bit of an urban legend, Mahowald said, because people are aware and afraid of the threat from them. "People are much more prepared now than they were 12 months ago," he said.

As a precaution, he added, there are software programs that "scrub" e-mails of suspect attachments as well as preventing spam blasts, he said.

Security Focus also posted a list of antivirus practices all users can follow.

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