The e-mail was from a woman I knew decades ago, back when we were spooning teenagers. We had corresponded electronically maybe three times since then, I swear. The subject line on this latest missive was "Homepage." The message read, simply: "Hi! You've got to see this page! It's really cool." It was signed with a goofy emoticon, a winking, sideways smiling face--;0). "Ho, ho! You sly thing!" I thought, recalling the feverish summer of '70...and clicked on the attached file. Pause. Uh-oh.
It was the dumbest thing I'd done since 1979, when I pitched a tent on a colony of army ants in Mexico. My screen started shimmering like a Yucatan sunset. I had unleashed a computer virus.
I felt like the doctor in The Andromeda Strain; the clock was outracing me. I went to my e-mail program, clicked on File, then selected Work Offline. That, I assumed, would cordon me off from the Net and keep me from spreading the bug while I figured out how to get rid of it. Next I checked my Out box. Argh! Sixty-five messages were queued up, waiting to be sent to my friends. Each was from me. Each bore the subject line "Homepage." Each had a file attached, as doom-laden as a warhead.
I deleted the messages and emptied the Recycle Bin. Then I went to the Web for guidance. Cursing myself for not using an antivirus program on my home computer (I use McAfee.com's at work), I learned that the Homepage virus is the most common bug--technically, it's a "worm"--out there. It afflicts only PC users of Microsoft Outlook and would not damage my computer. But it would immediately mail itself to everyone in my address book--that is, everyone to whom I've ever sent a Reply message. The worm also resets your browser's home page to one of four porn sites. This last bit had not happened to mine. Was I spared?
Gingerly, I fired up Outlook and connected to the Net. Fifty messages poured into my In box. Most were from corporate servers--such as Time Inc.'s--informing me that my e-mail was being returned unopened since it contained a virus. The last message was from my friend Marshall: "If you don't mind my asking, which home page?" Double argh! I had spread the accursed worm. I wrote a mea culpa warning, which I mailed to everyone in my address book: Don't click on that attachment!
The worst part was that many of the people I had e-mailed were newbies--subscribers who had e-mailed me for help in connection with this column. Most of these folks were kind; only one asked me to remove her name from my address book. A guy from the Philippines, birthplace of the dread Love Bug virus, wrote, "It is quite ironic that I got a worm from you."
Let that irony be a lesson to you: Never open an attachment, even from a friend, unless you've been told to expect it. And always use virus protection. Finally, if you get an e-mail from me whose subject is "Homepage," run.