Recently a friend was caught on one of those always present Internet hoaxes. This one was particularly virulent as it encouraged her to delete a needed file from her operating system.

The hoax, in the form of an unsolicited e-mail message, urges you to hunt for a particular file, SULFNBK.EXE, which it calls a virus, and it tells you exactly how to find it on your hard drive and how to completely delete it. The file, however, is a standard part of the Windows 98 operating system, one that allows you to use long file names, so it is necessary for the full operation of your computer.

The cure for the hoax, should you fall victim to it, is easy in this case -- finding your operating system installation disk and reinstalling the deleted file.

Why do people do these things? I am asked that question over and over. There is no answer, really, to why someone would devote his or her energy and time to writing and sending a hoax, or a virus, to damage other people\'s computers. I guess it takes the same kind of person as one who would steal or destroy Christmas decorations -- an inconsiderate, supremely selfish person who has a grudge against life. There are apparently lots of those in our modern world.

Whenever you receive an unsolicited \"virus\" warning, the first thing you should do is go to an established, well-documented hoax or anti-virus Web site and check it out. Do not send it along to \"everyone in your address book,\" for that is what the hoaxer wants you to do.

There are several good Web sites. I use http://www.vmyths.com, or McAfee\'s site http://vil.mcafee.com, or http://www.scambusters.org. One site urges you to e-mail the hoax to the site rather than passing it along to all your friends. The e-mail address is hoaxfyi@vmyths.com.

The same thing should be done about actual viruses and worms. If the virus is damaging, the word will get out to the professionals before it gets to your Aunt Tillie or your Uncle John, who obligingly will send it along to you.

The standard rules apply for anything you get from e-mail -- be suspicious. Do not open any attachments you are not expecting, even from friends. Worms do attach their files to outgoing mail from anyone, including your closest, dearest friend, unbeknownst.

Any file with an executable file extension, including .exe, .com, .bat, should not be opened unless you know exactly what it is and who sent it to you. Also, watch out for fake extensions, ones that have a benign ending like .jpg or .doc which have a further, real extension to them like file.doc.com or any combination thereof.

When you are unsure, delete. If it was a real file, the person who sent it to you will write back and ask if you got it. Most stuff is not worth keeping on your hard drive anyway and you should get into the habit of deleting anything you conclude you will not need in the next 30 days or so.

I strongly recommend that you familiarize yourself with the anti-virus and myths Web sites, and the ones that deal with urban legends as well. For as much good the Internet does, it also does harm -- sort of like fire -- in that it is a wonderful medium for rapidly spreading misinformation. Learning how to judge the validity of information is a necessity.

You would think by now that software writers would have become more successful at protecting computers from such vandalism. Such is not the case with Windows XP, Microsoft\'s new operating system.

Ballyhooed as the most secure operating system in the company\'s history when it was first announced, XP has since been the subject of warnings about serious security flaws. The latest one involves its automatic \"universal plug and play\" feature which can easily be subverted by hackers without the knowledge of the computer\'s owner. Rogue software could be placed on your computer without your knowledge. The FBI sees the flaw as a major threat and has warned consumers and corporations about it.

Users of XP should go to Microsoft\'s Web sites to download and install all patches for the security breaches, and they should keep a constant eye out for additional public announcements about flaws and problems with the system. No operating system is completely secure, but somehow I think the professionals should be getting better at protecting us from the hackers.

Still, you are your own first line of defense, and that means being fully informed about what is going on in cyberspace. Read everything you can get your hands on and verify everything before taking action.

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