Just how destructive will 'Melissa' virus be?

Covering the computer-virus beat can be hazardous to a reporter's credibility. The trick is to balance a writer's duty to inform (and warn) consumers about an attack without pushing the panic button unnecessarily. Complicating matters are the self-serving antivirus companies, which like to see reporters err on the side of sensationalism to drive up sales. With Friday and weekend reports of a new e-mail attachment virus dubbed "Melissa," the question is, should we be scared?

The virus reportedly replicates by sending itself as a Word attachment to 50 people in the recipient's address book. While most people have learned not to open attachments, this message is titled "Important Message from [friend's name]", to better trick users. And early reports show it has worked pretty well.

Most outlets included a quote from antivirus company Network Associates calling "Melissa" the fastest-spreading virus yet. MSNBC's Bob Sullivan gave even greater credence to a public warning from Carnegie Mellon's Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT), which has only given such warnings twice in ten years. A CERT manager told Sullivan, "We're getting so many reports from across the world, that we know this is going to be a huge problem come Monday."

Despite all the warnings, most outlets were quick to say that the virus doesn't damage most computers it infects, but can overwhelm mail servers with all the messages it creates.

The New York Times' Matt Richtel said computers have been hit at Charles Schwab, Intel, Lucent and the US Department of Energy. As for Melissa's origin, Richtel said it might actually be an "Internet marketing ploy that spun out of control", since the attachment includes a list of porn sites.

One expert says if the virus was meant to do damage, the culprit could have included a program to delete data. News.com's Stephen Shankland said the virus was similar to the "Share Fun" virus of 1997, but more robust and quoted a Network Associates expert as estimating Melissa has infected "hundreds of thousands of computers."

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