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MICHELANGELO THREAT PROMPTS A WARNING TO PRACTICE SAFE COMPUTING

Do you know where that floppy disk has been?

Taking a page from safe sex manuals, experts are warning computer users to practice safe computing because of viruses like one called Michelangelo, which could trigger millions of computer crashes and erase data on hard disks this week.The virus lies dormant in an estimated 5 million IBM-compatible personal computers worldwide and is poised to strike on Friday, the artist's birthdate.

"This is one of the most widespread viruses," said John Mc-Afee, president of McAfee Associates, an anti-virus computer consulting firm in Santa Clara. "It's out there in a large way and could cause lots of damage if it isn't stopped."

Computer experts say it might be possible to disable the virus in an already-infected computer by changing the date stored in the machine, so the virus never knows it's March 6. A more foolproof - but more expensive - way is to purchase an anti-viral program.

Dataquest Inc., a market research company in San Jose, released a survey of 300 major businesses Monday showing that the Michelangelo infection rate rose from 5.5 percent at the end of 1991 to 18.2 percent by Jan. 31.

A virus is a computer program created by hackers to destroy data or otherwise disrupt computers. Michelangelo first appeared in Scandinavia in February 1991. Finding the source of the virus is virtually impossible, experts said.

"Many people haven't been real vigilant about protecting their computers against viruses," said Peter Francis, a software analyst for Dataquest.

"People share disks and use disks when they don't know where they've been. And they don't use anti-virus programs to stop this stuff from spreading."

Like biological viruses, Michelangelo is spread through contact - with an infected disk, modem or network. Once in the machine, the virus can spread to every disk used. Preventing infection is much like practicing safe sex to avoid human disease: mainly by avoiding computer contact with disks of unknown origin.

Infected computers turned up at an AIDS research lab in the San Francisco area, the San Jose Mercury News and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Leading Edge Products Inc. of Westboro, Mass., shipped several hundred Michelangelo-loaded computers in January.

On Monday, Intel Corp. pulled its LANSpool 3.01, a print server software program, from the market because some units were infected. Even the federal Sandia Labs nuclear facility in Albuquerque, N.M., discovered a few infected computers.

The problem may be more widespread that commonly thought.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people who get affected by a virus keep quiet because they think it looks like their procedures are loose, or maybe like they pirated some software," said Martin Tibor, a data security specialist with Synapse Data Recovery.

The Michelangelo virus is more widespread and potentially destructive than previous large virus strains such as Columbus Day, Jerusalem, Friday the 13th and Stoned, experts said. Those viruses were also triggered by dates.