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Conficker computer virus may wreak havoc today

Will it be the mother of all viruses or just whimper away like Y2K?

That’s the question on many minds today as the “Conficker” computer virus is expected to hit computers around the country.

The Conficker worm, a nasty computer infection that has poisoned millions of PCs, will start ramping up its efforts today but it’s unclear whether everyday PC users will even notice. Experts, however, say this is as good an excuse as any to make sure your computer is clean.

Mike Harshbarger, co-owner of Computer Renaissance in Bradenton, said many in computer circles aren’t sure what to expect today.

“The general fear in the computing community is that even the experts aren’t quite sure what it’s going to do,” he said. “It’s purportedly the most widespread virus that’s been out there. In our store we’ve seen a few instances of it. We haven’t seen a lot of it. It’s more prevalent in Europe and Asia.”

Lots of computer worms disable antivirus software outright, which can be a tip-off that something is wrong. But Conficker doesn’t do that. Instead, Conficker blocks infected PCs from accessing the antivirus vendors’ and Microsoft’s Web sites so victims won’t get automatic updates and can’t download the Conficker removal tools that those companies have developed.

Variants of Conficker are believed to have first surfaced in January. Some media reports have stated the virus may have originated in China, but those reports are not conclusive.

Experts advise that computer users see what Web sites they can visit. If one can navigate the Internet freely except for sites owned by Microsoft or antivirus vendors such as Symantec Corp., McAfee Inc. or F-Secure Corp., his or her PC might have Conficker or a similar bug.

Harshbarger said Microsoft issued a security patch in October of last year that should close a hole through which viruses enter.

For the most part, Macs are not affected, Harshbarger said.

The most important thing for PC owners is to make sure Windows updates are performed regularly and a full system scan using anti-virus software is done, Harshbarger said.

A list of the free Conficker removal programs is available on the Web site of the Conficker Working Group, an alliance of companies fighting the worm. The removal programs will take care of themselves, for the most part, scanning your system and purging the worm.

One thing to note: Conficker blocks infected machines from running removal tools with “Conficker” in the name. So users might have to change the name of the file (once you’ve saved the tool to your desktop, right-click on it and select “rename”) before running it.

The program’s instructions will let you know if you need to do this. Many antivirus vendors have already changed the names in their removal tools — in some cases calling the file a misspelled variant of “Conficker” — to trick the worm into letting the program run.

Mike McLaughlin, deputy director of information technologies for Manatee County, said his office is taking proactive steps to protect the county’s roughly 1,700 computers.

“We’re actively scanning all of our county sub-networks for the Conficker worm,” McLaughlin said. “We have downloaded a detection system that basically identifies the fingerprint of this worm and then we have eradication tools to eliminate that if it’s detected.”

Overall though, the county’s network is “quite well protected,” McLaughlin said.

Joe Durkin, spokesman for Bright House Networks, said the company is monitoring the virus but feels it is well protected.

“Like any major business we take precautions all the time,” Durkin said. “While this virus is gaining public attention with the projected launch (today), Bright House Networks does things to protect our system 365 days a year. We’re on guard always for any virus that may disrupt our system and cause problems for our customers.”

— Information from Associated Press was used in this