Antivirus software companies reported an increase in virus hoaxes, as opposed to real viruses, during the Y2K rollover period.
According to Abingdon, UK-based Sophos, its help desk received more calls about virus hoaxes than about real viruses.
"We had far more people searching our Web site for information on hoaxes than [on] any specific computer virus," said Graham Cluely, senior technology consultant at Sophos Anti-virus.
Sophos picked up on the number of false reports through virus searches keyed into its search engine by people believing them to be genuine viruses.
Cluely said that virus hoaxes aren't just annoyances, but also "damage the credibility of companies passing them on," especially because "it looks stupid to fall for a hoax."
"Virus hoaxes use up e-mail bandwidth, as everyone is told to forward them to all their friends and colleagues," he said. "In a way that's rather like the impact the Melissa virus can have on an e-mail system."
Typically, hoaxes are e-mails that describe a dangerous new undetectable virus, usually using bogus technical terms. However, such hoaxes can spread beyond e-mail as well.
"I've heard hoaxes reported as fact on the radio, TV, Web sites, and newspapers," Cluely said. "In some ways, this makes (hoaxes) worse than computer viruses, as they can even be spread by people chatting down (at) the pub."
Due to a surge of false alarms, Network Associates' Anti-virus Emergency Response Team (AVERT), has taken to tracking virus hoaxes as well as genuine viruses.
AVERT said that hoax virus warning messages are dangerous because computer users might let their guard down if they get into the habit of ignoring all virus warning messages after becoming repeatedly alarmed by hoaxes.
It also warned of people using known hoaxes to their advantage by creating destructive viruses and attaching them to original hoax warnings.
"An Australian virus-writing gang called VLAD (Virus Labs and Distribution) did this," Cluely said. "They released a virus which they called "Good Times," in an attempt to cause confusion between it and the Good Times hoax," he said. "However, the antivirus industry refused to call it Good Times and called it GT-Spoof instead."
There's a thin line between a virus spoof and a virus hoax. "Some people believe the most outlandish things if they receive it in an e-mail. So even jokes can get out of hand and cause problems," Cluely said. "It's only a joke if you realise it's a joke."
Sophos reported that although no official research has been undertaken on the costs of virus hoaxes, it is believed that a hoax could cost more than a genuine virus incident, since there is no means of detecting a hoax the way antivirus software can detect a virus.
"Some companies panic when they receive a hoax virus warning and assume the worst, making the situation much worse," Cluely said.
In the meantime, antivirus companies continue to advise vigilance when opening e-mail, especially suspicious attachments. Companies are also encouraged to circulate a policy on virus hoaxes to help reduce the costs involved.