It may sound like the latest hoax, but this time the emails warning of the looming end to the (online) world contain a grim grain of truth.
Thousands of Americans could lose their Internet service Monday, July 9, unless they do a quick check of their computers for malware that could have taken over their machines more than a year ago.
The warnings about the problem have been splashed across Facebook and Google. Internet service providers have sent notices, as has the Better Business Bureau, and the FBI set up a special website.
But according to the Associated Press, the FBI estimates about 64,000 computers in the United States are still infected. And those still infected by Monday will lose their ability to go online, forcing their owners to call service providers for help in deleting the malware and reconnecting to the Internet.
Last November, the FBI took down the servers of international hackers operating out of Estonia. The hackers had already successfully downloaded malware onto more than 500,000 computers worldwide, turning off virus updates and redirecting consumers to fraudulent websites.
If the servers had simply been shut down, the victims’ computers would no longer be able to access the internet. Instead, the FBI brought in a private company, the DNS Changer Working Group, to install two clean Internet servers to take over for the ones that were running the scam. Victims have been redirected to those clean servers ever since, usually without any knowledge they’d been infected in the first place.
The temporary Internet system the FBI set up, however, will be shut down at 12:01 a.m. Eastern Time Monday.
“Everyone should check to see if their computer is infected,” urged Charlie Mattingly, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving Louisville, Southern Indiana, and western Kentucky. “It takes less than a minute to check and, if your equipment is clean, there is nothing more you need to do. If your computer is infected, the DNS Changer Working Group recommends the necessary steps to save your computer. But this must be done by July 9 or you could lose Internet access.”
Jim Johnson, owner of The Computer Shop in downtown Leitchfield, said they haven’t seen a problem with this particular malware “as of yet.”
“I don’t think we’ve got much of a problem in this area,” he said. “We’ve had maybe three or four peculiar viruses we’ve encountered over the last few months, but not this one.”
One of the problems, Johnson said, is that as quickly as software manufacturers’ and repair personnel’s technology and experience levels increase to combat malware and viruses, hackers’ technology to infect computers increases.
He suggested people use common-sense approaches, such as making sure their security software is up to date and working.
In recent days social networking sites and Internet providers have gotten more involved in this anti-malware battle, reaching out to computer users to warn of the problem.
Tom Grasso, an FBI supervisory special agent, told the Associated press that many Internet providers are ready for the problem and have plans to try to help their customers. Some, such as Comcast, already have reached out with notices and information on its website. Because the company can tell whether there is a problem with a customer’s Internet server, Comcast also contacted customers whose computers appeared to be affected.
Grasso said other Internet providers may come up with technical solutions that they will put in place Monday that will either correct the problem or provide information to customers when they call to say their Internet isn’t working. If the Internet providers correct the server problem, the Internet will work, but the malware will remain on victims’ computers and could pose future problems.
In addition to individual computer owners, about 50 Fortune 500 companies are still infected, Grasso told the Associated Press.
Both Facebook and Google created their own warning messages that showed up if someone using either site appeared to have an infected computer, and offering links to click on for information on fixing the problem.
To check whether a computer is infected, users can visit a website run by the group brought in by the FBI: http://www.dcwg.org.
The site includes links to respected commercial sites that will run a quick check on the computer, and it also lays out detailed instructions if users want to actually check the computer themselves.