Look out, computer hackers — there's a new sheriff in town.
Microsoft announced Thursday that it had placed a $250,000 bounty on the heads of the developers and distributors of a nasty computer virus that's been worming its way worldwide for months.
"As part of Microsoft's ongoing security efforts, we constantly look for ways to use a diverse set of tools and develop methodologies to protect our customers," said George Stathakopoulos, general manager of the Trustworthy Computing Group at Microsoft in a press release.
Known as the Conficker (a pun on "configure" and a four-letter German swear word) or Downadup worm, the virus has infected at least 10 million Windows-based computers since it first appeared in October. It's forced the British and French navies to take some systems offline.
Most worrisome is the fact that it doesn't do much — yet. Experts fear it's just waiting for a command to turn all infected machines into a superpowerful "botnet" of zombie PCs that could be used to take down commercial, military or governmental Web sites.
Joining Microsoft in the effort to stop the spread of the Conficker worm are AOL, the Internet governing body ICANN, the domain register Verisign and a host of security companies, including Symantec and F-Secure.
"The best way to defeat potential botnets like Conficker/Downadup is by the security and Domain Name System communities working together," Greg Rattray, chief Internet security advisor at ICANN, said in the press release.
However, it's not clear whether the reward will do much good to defeat Conficker.
Many hackers operate far from the jurisdiction of Western law enforcement, such as in the former Soviet Union, where they seem to be protected by organized crime and/or governmental authorities, or in China, where they're thought to be clandestinely funded by the Chinese military.
PCs running non-Windows operating systems are not affected by Conficker. You get instructions on how to protect a Windows machine here.