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New virus found that targets cell phones

Tuesday, June 6, 2000


WASHINGTON -- Computer security experts intercepted a new virus designed to attack cell phones with text capabilities, posing a fresh threat to handheld computers, pagers and phones that are exploding in use worldwide.

The virus, similar to the Love Letter virus -- also called "ILOVEYOU" -- that recently clogged network computers, was written to target phones on the Telefonica cellular network, three leading antivirus firms said Tuesday. The virus is called "Timofonica." In Spanish, "timo" means "prank."

Telefonica, owner of Spain's largest cell phone network, said it had received no reports of problems from its customers. And the antivirus experts suspect they may have caught the virus before it could send prank messages to cell phones.

Much of the focus in fighting cyberterrorism so far has been on stopping viruses targeted at home computers, where data can be deleted or altered, or at major computer networks, where viruses can flood networks with repetitive actions and grind them to a halt.

The security experts say the Spanish virus -- which could be altered easily to attack the millions of pagers and cell phones being used worldwide -- foreshadows the beginning of attacks on other handheld devices like Palms and Microsoft Pocket PC computers.

"Virus writers are starting to target handhelds and mobile phones," said Mikko Hypponen, chief scientist for the Finland-based F-Secure antivirus company. "That's what's significant about this virus."

According to F-Secure, the virus called "Timofonica" is spread in a traditional manner -- as an e-mail attachment. When a recipient opens the infected attachment, the virus plus a message critical of Telefonica is sent to each e-mail address in his or her address book.

The twist is this virus also sends a text message to a randomly selected cell phone on Telefonica's network each time it spreads. "It doesn't infect the phones themselves, but they get prank messages," Hypponen said.

If altered to send large numbers of phone text messages, the virus could clog a network, experts warned.

"I've asked the researchers to be extremely aware that someone will probably try to replicate this in America. It won't be hard," said Vincent Gullatto, director of the AVERT antivirus lab at the San Jose, Calif.-based Network Associates, which makes McAfee antivirus software.

Telefonica said the company doesn't believe the virus was sent to any of its phones. "We have no complaint from any customer about it," said spokesman Ed Holland.

However, both F-Secure and Kapersky Lab, another antivirus company based in Russia, reported receiving complaints about the virus. In one case, a single corporate user inadvertently sent out 500 copies of it.

The antivirus firms obtained a copy of the malicious code and created a software solution to stop its spread.

Vincente Coll, a representative in Spain for Kapersky Labs, said the recent spate of virus attacks using e-mail attachments made users more vigilant, and that should help stem the spread of Timofonica.

"The paranoia of ILOVEYOU made people not trust attachments," Coll said.

But Gullatto said as the operating systems for handheld devices become more sophisticated to allow the creation of miniature automation programs known as macros, the potential to wreak havoc will grow.

"Automation is the key. Once macros start working for phones, then we'll have a problem," he said.

David Chess, an antivirus researcher with IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center, said software designers can learn from the lessons of earlier viruses to improve protection of handheld devices.

"We know about PC viruses and we have the opportunity to apply that knowledge to these new platforms," he said.

-- Martin Thompson (, June 06, 2000

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