Computer viruses have not been in the headlines lately, but that does not mean they have gone away. They tend to pop up around days such as Halloween or Friday the 13th or Easter, because many of them are timed to lie dormant until a certain date.
Viruses, little snippets of rogue code hidden in legitimate application programs that spread by reproducing themselves, are actually very rare.
The average home or small business personal computer user has about as much chance of getting infected with a virus as of getting hit by lightning. Viruses are more common in larger businesses, government offices and schools that have large numbers of personal computers connected on networks.
Two new programs are especially worthy of consideration for virus protection: the Norton Antivirus, from Symantec Corp., which also makes Symantec Antivirus for the Macintosh (SAM); and Hyperaccess/5, a communications program from Hilgraeve Inc.
The Norton Antivirus scans a user's disks for known viruses, removes any it finds and "immunizes" against subsequent attacks. It is useful for scanning any new software that comes on diskettes.
Many people "download" their software directly from another computer via telephone lines. Hyperaccess/5 filters out known viruses from the incoming data stream before they have a chance to infect the machine.
Most viruses are more annoying than destructive, but one, called the Jerusalem virus, is particularly nasty because it clogs the computer's memory and erases application programs whenever Friday the 13th rolls around. Some rare viruses reformat the user's hard disk, wiping out all data.
One can virtually eliminate the risk by practicing safe computing.
* Use a scanning program such as Norton to make sure there are no viruses in the system. Use the scanner for any new software you load into the system, even commercial programs that come in a sealed box.
* Make regular backups of all data. (Scan first; otherwise you'll be backing up the viruses along with the data.) If a virus does corrupt your files, you'll have a clean, albeit slightly dated, copy.
* Do not use "pirated" or bootlegged, software, that is, unauthorized copies made by a friend. It's ethically wrong and illegal, and it is also dangerous.
The Norton Antivirus costs $129 and is available at major software stores, or from Symantec Corp. of Santa Monica, Calif., (213) 319-2000. Symantec Antivirus for Mac (SAM) is $99.95.
Hyperaccess/5 has a list price of $99.95 for the DOS version and $199.95 for a version that works with both DOS and OS/2. Version 2.0 is scheduled for release in two to three weeks, company officials said, and will be programmed to find more than 130 of the known viruses. Hilgraeve Inc.'s telephone number is (800) 826-2760.