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TAKE COMPUTER VIRUS THREATS SERIOUSLY

If you heard, read or saw news that that the media-hyped Michelangelo virus was all a bust, believe us when we say that the reporters of such news are not wired in to the serious users of computers.

It's true the so-called Michelangelo computer virus did not wipe out millions of computers. We don't think anybody ever said it would. We didn't.We think a couple of hundred companies hit with massive data destruction is tragedy enough. And Michelangelo, despite all the TV time and newspaper headlines about its threat, did do more damage than that.

We're ashamed that so many of our media colleagues seemed to hope for bigger numbers. In fact, one producer on the "Today" show specifically asked if we would supply names of companies who found widespread infection from the virus. It triggered on March 6 and wiped out data stored on infected computers whose owners had not taken proper precautions.

We did share an anecdote about an anonymous company, the investment division of a Fortune 500 insurance company, who'd followed our advice and tested for Michelangelo. That company found 20 percent of its PCs were infected, data on those machines was seldom backed up adequately, and if Michelangelo's time bomb had erased the data, on March 6, the company would have been in jeopardy of going under, perhaps taking its parent company with it.

The producer insinuated strongly that if we'd reveal the name of that nearly victimized firm, he'd have us back on the "Today" show (where Connie Chung first interviewed the two of us in 1983). We declined and, instead, protected the identity of the investment firm. They counted on our confidentiality, and we stuck to it. Their vitality could have been seriously jeopardized just by news of how close they came to tragedy. So you lost your chance to wake up early and see one of us swapping yarns with an NBC host.

We also refused to share names of smaller firms who'd detected Michelangelo or other viruses in time because they also counted on our protection from infamy.

In nearly half of all the calls we or our staff answered, we found that it was necessary to reassure callers that "Now, even nice computer users can get computer viruses." But because of the fear of being stigmatized for coming in contact with a computer virus, all but one of those affected by a virus asked for anonymity. He was also the first of our callers who, while following our tips, discovered that his firm had been infected with Michelangelo.

We won't identify him, either. He was a CPA with a smallish firm in New Jersey. Throughout most of the year, the firm backs up computer data religiously. But now that everybody there is rushing to get all the 1040 tax returns out the door before April 15, other jobs sometimes get postponed.

He told us, "Our computers haven't had proper backup for a week. We didn't intend to scan for the Michelangelo virus until we read your warning. I bought the antivirus software on the way to work, ran it during lunch hour and found the virus!"

He was very emotional by the time he told us, "We could have gotten wiped out." And so could a lot of other innocent users of computers.

Many of them were other CPAs right in the middle of their busiest few months as they crank out those ubiquitous 1040 tax returns. A couple were computer consultants. Two were vendors of software.

For every firm that detected the Michelangelo virus, two detected some other invader among the nearly 1,000 known computer viruses. In all, we commiserated with 12 people who discovered strains of three different viruses that affected nearly 1,000 computers in practically every one of the 50 states, although a majority were concentrated on the Eeast Coast and Upper Midwest.

But in all, we fielded more than 250 calls during Michelangelo week. Callers from San Diego and Albany reported that all computer retailers there were out of anti-virus products. San Francisco callers reported they were being sold version 2.0 of one product even though 2.1 was required to check for Michelangelo.

What was gratifying was the acceptance by almost every one of the callers that the threat of catching a computer virus has unfortunately become a normal part of doing business on a computer. Just as you have to buy software and electricity to make the computer work, you also now have to buy anti-virus software to keep your computers working.