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'Goner' Worm Disrupts E-mail, Security Programs

Electronic security experts are warning of a powerful new computer worm that can do everything from send e-mail to delete virus programs to hack other machines, all from your own PC.

Disguised as an innocuous screensaver program from a thoughtful friend, the "Goner" worm appeared Tuesday morning and is on its way to becoming a worldwide epidemic — and computer-virus specialists are warning people to be on the alert.

"The subject line says 'Hi' and will be from someone you know," Symantec security response group manager Kevin Haley said. "The text will say 'How are you? I saw this screensaver and immediately thought of you.' That's a giveaway."

Needless to say, computer users are advised not to open the attached "screensaver" program, or they will unleash a computer worm that will delve through their e-mail address books, replicate itself and send itself out to all their friends.

Goner works through Microsoft programs like Outlook and Outlook Express and can send itself through instant-messaging services like ICQ and Internet Relay Chat. It does not affect Macintosh users.

But that's not the most insidious facet of the Goner worm's attack.

"It will put scripts into your system that will allow a hacker to go into your system and launch denial-of-service attacks on other computers," Haley said. "It will also delete your anti-virus and firewall programs."

This so-called "blended" attack — part traditional virus, part hack — is a sign that computer viruses are evolving to the next, more evolved step, he said. It leaves the back door open so that any hacker who knows where to look can go into an infected computer and use it for his own purposes.

"This is something we've been concerned about for a while," Haley said.

Goner was first reported in Europe — Symantec's first submission was from The Netherlands — but its point of origin remains unknown, Haley said. It has been rated a Level 3 by the Cupertino, Calif.-based company, but will likely earn a Level 4 threat rating by Wednesday morning because it is spreading so quickly, Haley said.

The highest threat level rated by Symantec is Level 5.

The McAfee security company gave "Goner" its "outbreak" status, last achieved by the "Love Letter" virus, which caused billions of dollars in damages worldwide.

"It's moving extremely quickly," said McAfee virus research manager April Goostree. "We're getting hundreds and hundreds of samples in a very short time."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.