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'Love,' other computer viruses rely on social engineering for effectiveness

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First it was a love letter. Then a joke. Then an invoice. Forget contagious - never before has a virus been so irresistible.

Computer users and corporations had better get used to sly attacks such as the "ILOVEYOU" virus. In today's supersaturated media marketplace, virus authors are just like any other advertiser trying to break through the clutter and get us to click on - before word spreads and defenses go up.

The result is something that experts are calling social engineering.

"That's one of the ways this virus was sort of cutting-edge sophisticated," said Ben Venzke of iDefense Inc., an intelligence firm specializing in computer and communications security. "The way it came from someone you knew, the way each of the messages took advantage of some very specific way people interact with their e-mail."

He said it shows that the virus authors study their audience - "how people use their e-mail, how a phrase works worded one way and how it works worded another.

"I guarantee whoever's behind this knows more about this kind of social engineering than most New York marketing firms."

Of course, there are less highfalutin ways than social engineering to describe this newest variation on the oldest of games.

"How about good, old-fashioned salesmanship," says Steve Jones, a communications professor and author of The Other Side of the Internet . "Whatever else any of these e-mail viruses may do or be, the first thing they come to people as is a sales pitch, an appeal to please open me up."

So far, this virus has used love, laughs and money to get online adults to take candy from a cyber-stranger. What could be next?

Mr. Jones plays fortuneteller.

"Maybe the next virus will come wrapped in an offer for free beer."
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