Ghost in the Machine: The Truth About Four Computer Virus Myths

While some malicious freaks enjoy sending viruses across the Internet to eat other people’s files, you shouldn’t believe everything you hear. Here’s the actual data on four computer virus myths.

We’ve all fallen for the occasional computer virus myth, because the reality is so scary. Since most of us aren’t computer experts, we depend on our machines to work the way we need them to; it’s infuriating to think that some script kiddie out there would deliberately — and randomly — try to sabotage us.

But all is not as bad as it might seem. Gather ’round, and take a close look as we explode a few myths about those nasty computer viruses.

Myth 1: Computer viruses can physically harm your computer.

Nope. Like Cyberdyne’s Skynet in the Terminator movies, viruses are just software. They do their damage by replicating themselves on your hard drive, and they have to be opened (executed) first. So a virus might do a number on your files by overwriting and corrupting them, but it can never physically harm your hardware. Claims that they can overheat and damage your computer by making your CPU run too fast are pure computer virus myth.

Myth 2: I can get a computer virus just from reading my email.

Not likely, since there’s no way to encode a virus onto text. However, be leery of any executable attachments — that is, anything ending with .exe, .ini, .com, .doc, .pps, .wma, .wav, .mp3, .xls, .mdb or something similar. Any can upload a file into your system. But if you don’t open the attachment, you don’t have to worry about infection.

Usually, that is. There’s one email virus scenario that’s NOT a computer virus myth. A Microsoft Windows security hole lets some viruses run scripts that download a file automatically once you open your mail.

Myth 3: I should take every computer virus warning seriously.

Not unless the person sending the warning has some authority as a virus expert. Just because your well-meaning pal wanted to give you a heads-up about the latest cyberplague doesn’t mean they’re right. Check with an authoritative source (like to make sure the warning isn’t a mistake or a hoax.

This computer virus myth has been responsible for more damage and wasted time than most viruses actually cause. Ironically, it’s the warning that becomes the virus — it gets replicated over and over and spreads across the Web like wildfire. Remember what they say about good intentions, okay?

Myth 4: Oh no! My mouse won’t work/my browser won’t open/my screen is dark/I got the Blue Screen of Death! My computer must have a virus!

As annoying as something like this is, it’s not necessarily the fault of a computer virus. To be absolutely certain, keep your antivirus software up to date (you do have antivirus software, right?), and if you can, run it through its paces after the aberration to see what it finds.

Back before viruses were common, people blamed the odd behavior of their computers on lightning strikes and electrical surges. Now we blame viruses. But take care — before setting another computer virus myth loose on the ‘Net, check to see if maybe, just maybe, you simply have a loose connection somewhere.