The Bagle Virus' Nasty Turn

Is the Internet becoming a little more hazardous? The Bagle virus took a turn for the worse yesterday, with some variations now able to infect PCs without any user intervention.

By user intervention, we mean opening attachments. Even the most casual of home PC users now understand that it's dangerous to open strange attachments they're not expecting, especially from strangers or, sometimes, even from friends who have unknowingly sent a virus.

This new version of Bagle only requires a recipient to open the email or view it within the Outlook preview frame, where some invisible HTML code downloads and infects a PC through a known flaw in the Internet Explorer browser. According to Dow Jones, there are several subject lines that may herald the virus' arrival, including "E-Mail Warning" and "Fax Message Received."

Before you panic, there's good news. According to anti-virus rivals Network Associates (NYSE: NET  ) and Symantec (Nasdaq: SYMC  ) , you PC users who have been downloading Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) patches with discipline shouldn't have any problems. Meanwhile, most corporate IT departments have likely kept things up to date.

Also, this version isn't widespread so far (see above). What's interesting is that it's a new way of delivery, which means Microsoft (and Windows users) will have to be diligent. In that vein, it could signal a new trend in viruses -- executing without attachments is a smarter contagion indeed.

The news comes at a rather inopportune time. Yesterday, the Pew Internet & American Life survey said that spam alone has been reducing the use of email and spoiling people's view of it as a safe communications tool. The survey said that 30% of respondents decreased their use of email due to spam. In fact, 77% said that spam makes their online experience "unpleasant and annoying."

The danger hasn't been lost on lawmakers, who recently enacted the CAN-SPAM Act, which many industry watchers claim hasn't yet done much to alleviate the onslaught of spam. Meanwhile, archrivals with a pretty hefty stake in email's history as the Internet's killer app -- including Microsoft, Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) America Online, and Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) -- recently banded together in a lawsuit targeting spammers.

So we have the annoyance of spam, the threat of viruses, and signs of a growing weariness in users -- the email experience is degrading. It's clear the industry needs to continue to fight to clean up inboxes or risk a souring outlook on email.

Has spam taken the fun out of email? Do you think this new virus signals a bad new trend? Talk with other Fools who track this sort of thing on the Viruses, Hoaxes, & Spam, Oh My! discussion board.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any companies mentioned.

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