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Messaging systems brace for virus attack

Singapore, Jan. 14 (Reuters): Computer users should brace for a new onslaught of viruses this year, especially worms deployed into instant messaging systems that allow users to chat quickly and cheaply across the web, an anti-virus expert said today.

UK-based Sophos Plc, the fourth-largest anti-virus solutions provider, said it sees more viruses and their cousin, the self-propagating worm, infecting computers in 2003, but their occurrence was not expected to accelerate significantly.

“Virus writers are most interested in creating the next super Windows worm, spread by email or instant messaging, as these mass-mailing viruses carry the greatest impact,” Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, said.

“We expect more executable email-aware worms this year, while more viruses are written which use instant messaging services.”

Popular instant messaging systems include AOL Time Warner’s subsidiary ICQ, Microsoft Corp’s Instant Messaging and a similar system run by Yahoo.

A spokesman for Sophos said it was not singling out any one particular software technology as vulnerable.

Sophos also expects to see a rise in the number of so-called “Backdoor Trojans”, which open up holes in operating systems enabling hackers to implant Remote Access Tools (RATs) that can operate an infected computer by remote control.

About 80,000 viruses now exist, having grown at a rate of around 600-700 new ones each month in 2002, similar to that of 2001, but down from 800-900 a month the year before, Cluley said.

“We don’t expect an acceleration in the emergence of new viruses, just a stable increase of 600 to 700 a month like last year.”

This could be due to the introduction of enhanced anti-virus software and more vigilant computer users, he added.

Nine out of last year’s top 10 viruses were spread by email on Microsoft Windows platforms, with the “Klez” worm as the year’s most prolific virus. Last year’s second-most common virus was the “Bugbear” worm, Cluley said.

“Bugbear” took advantage of a known vulnerability in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and could be automatically run simply by reading the e-mail and not opening the attachment.

“Klez” was also spread by e-mail.

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