Owens sent an e-mail to the 342,000 of his subscribers on June 5 (after an initial mailing on June 2 to another list) warning them of a new virus, called AOL.EXE. Warning your customers of a virus seems like a nice thing to do, except that AOL.EXE isn't a virus at all; it's the America Online application that provides Internet access to millions of people worldwide.
The "virus warning" is a riff on the "sulfnbk.exe" virus hoax which circulated at the end of May and warned users to delete the file sulfnbk.exe -- which is not a virus at all, but rather a necessary Windows file -- if it was present on their computers, said Owens in a posting on his Web site. Owens chose AOL.EXE because "the absolute stupidest people (who write him letters) all proudly carry @AOL.COM ... The overwhelming majority of AOL people DO NOT read instructions. They DO NOT follow directions. They DO NOT have any business near a computer whatsoever," he wrote.
The message his subscribers received warned them of a virus called AOL.EXE which would activate on June 8 and instructed them how to remove the file from their computers.
The warning starts out innocently enough, saying that "(d)eleting this file will fix a damaged 30 megabyte area of your hard drive and restore it to full functionality."
However, perhaps victims of the hoax deserve less sympathy if they still deleted the file after being told that:
"Keeping this file on the system after June 8 will cost you $US2.90 more per month! (AOL is actually raising its monthly rates in July by $US1.95).
"Failure to remove this file will keep your "upper memory management" module of your intelligence quotient (IQ over 85) blocked. Deleting AOL.EXE will free your IQ to go above 85!!!
Deleting this file will allow you to spell correctly and use the English language properly."
The joke has caused a flurry of news stories worldwide and a flood of e-mails, with many users angry at Owens, though some have praised his wit, as well.
Despite the e-mails Owens has received, the hoax has resulted in only a "negligible number of calls (to AOL)," according to company spokesman Nicholas Graham. AOL posts information on hoaxes and scams on a special section of the service, he said.
"Volume on this particular hoax has been very, very low," Graham said.
Despite the reportedly low volume of calls, perhaps this joke, like others before it, will cause people to look, and think, before they delete. Or maybe it will just mean that a few more AOL installation CDs will be in PCs this month.