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Practice safe sharing and know who your electronic partners are.

That's the best way to protect computers from the growing number of viruses lurking along the electronic highway."If you loan or borrow computer programs, you are at risk of getting a virus. You need to protect yourself," said Rod Voris, technical manager for ComputerShow in Orem. "It's funny, the same rules apply as in sex."

Computer viruses range from the harmless prank to malicious sabotage, with the variety in between limited only by the imagination and computer expertise of the creators.

Currently, McAfee Associates - which has made a business out of helping companies and computer users avoid, deal with and clean up viruses - supplies a periodic listing of the most common computer viruses complete with a breakdown of the damage each can inflict.

There are 586 unique viruses plus 716 variants for a total of 1,302 on the latest list, sporting names like "Bad Boy," "Chaos," "Crazy Eddie," "Demolition," "Nazi," "Parasite" and "Leprosy."

"And this list's out of date," said Voris. "New ones are made every week."

Some overwrite files. Others damage the system's run-time operation. Many corrupt the boot disk and data files. Most increase the length in bytes of a file at the point of infection, thus overloading and jamming the memory.

"Some are really nasty. They can do enough damage to the software or indexed files that the computer doesn't know where to go. Some even do physical damage to the computer," said Voris, "and often the loss is incalculable."

Viruses slow the screen, turn it upside-down, spill letters in all directions, accelerate the action, flash messages, erase files.

One known as "Sweeper" has a little guy going across the screen sweeping away the characters. All the while, he's actually wiping the hard disk clean, said Voris.

Almost every virus affects the command files and gets into the memory, where it can sometimes reside undetected for months before the right keystroke or pattern sets it off.

People lose programs, files, research, customer lists and inventories if they don't have backups. Even then, Voris said, there's often a significant loss in time and energy because a system will have to be cleaned, reloaded and programs reinstalled before it is usable again.

Voris said while many a virus is created by the fun-loving hacker, many more are designed to sabotage a competitor or at the very least, inflict loss upon another user by people working for profit.

He's not sure the public takes viruses seriously enough.

"We had a lady call up worried about the Michelangelo virus, which if you didn't catch by Michelangelo's birthday, overwrote your hard drive," said Voris. "She had four computers, and I made her what I thought was a really good deal. For $60, I offered to come out and protect her computers. She said, `Well, we'll think about it' and never called me back."

On Michelangelo's birthday, she called ComputerShow.

"Our computers don't respond. They're completely down," said the woman. "They'll be all right tomorrow, won't they?"

Voris said unfortunately it doesn't work that way.

Unless a virus is legitimately a joke such as the tricks sold by companies like Hotboot in California (24 tricks for $14.95), the virus does permanent damage or is at least continuously annoying until it's eradicated.

When a company participates in a protection program available from a service like McAfee, a complete option package is provided including updates and cleanup instructions, which must be followed to the letter to avoid reinfection.

"The best thing to do is avoid it in the beginning," said Voris.

"I wouldn't buy cheap diskettes or software that you aren't sure about. Be careful who you trade with.

"I wouldn't worry about down-loading something from a company like McAfee, for instance, since they're a company that specializes in virus protection. But I'd be careful about some out there."

Voris makes it a rule for his technicians to scan for viruses before they introduce any disks or programs into the company's computers.

"Every machine that comes in, we scan BEFORE we work on it so we're not responsible," said Voris.

When customers ask about virus protection, Voris said they're referred to McAfee Associates (1-408-988-3832), whose program is available as Shareware at no cost, or advised to buy a product like Norton's anti-virus alert, which sells for about $85-95.

He also advises users to write/

protect themselves by covering the notch on a floppy to avoid copying and/or invasion and pushing up the notch chip on a hard diskette.

"Just remember, if you loan, you put yourself at risk," said Voris. "Take precautions."