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No meltdown: computer virus seems benign

EVEN if it's not an April Fools' joke, the latest moves by the dreaded Conficker worm are by no means an Internet Armageddon, either.

The computer virus' alarming outbreak entered a new phase yesterday as clocks around the world ticked into the first day of April, the day the worm was scheduled to change programming.

But security experts appeared correct in their predictions that the day was likely to come and go without any major disruptions, even though the worm has infected anywhere from 3 million to 12 million PCs running Microsoft Co's Windows operating system.

Computer infections now are all about making money by stealing people's personal information. Conficker's authors stand to make more money from renting out parts of their huge "botnet" - the millions of infected computers that they could in theory control - to spammers or identity thieves than by destroying parts of the Internet.

"These guys have been pretty smart until now - the worm is, unfortunately, very well done," said Patrik Runald, chief security adviser for F-Secure Corp, an anti-virus and computer security software company based in Finland. "So far they haven't been stupid. So why should they start on April 1?"

But panic over the worm had reached a frenzy. In the past six months, the worm has caused sleepless nights for the technicians who maintain corporate and governmental computer systems. Media reported the French military grounded some of its planes after the Navy's network was infected over the winter.

Companies were on high alert to any change in Conficker's behavior that could affect their systems. But a lot of the heavy lifting for big corporations has already been done. Most large organizations hurried to fix the vulnerability that Conficker exploits long ago.

Detecting a Conficker infection is actually very easy. One of the telltale signs is if you're able to navigate the Internet freely but can't access Microsoft's site or the sites for the major antivirus software vendors. Conficker's authors included that feature to prevent infected machines from downloading programs that remove the worm.


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