E-mail rogue virus is traced to Florida FBI close in on source of Melissa virus

Click to follow
The Independent Online
CYBERSPACE DETECTIVES trying to track the source of the Melissa virus, which overloaded tens of thousands of computers with junk e-mail earlier in the week, have narrowed their search to an Internet service provider in Orlando, Florida, many of whose users spend their time collecting, detecting and creating computer viruses.

"We understand Melissa came from a client using our service," Ron Spohn, projects manager for the provider Access Orlando, told Reuters. "But we don't really control the content. The client told us he was taking down the web page."

The FBI, relying heavily on the research of amateur computer sleuths, has been racing to find Melissa's creator since the virus first appeared last Friday and caused several company e-mail systems to crash as it automatically created 50 new messages for every one opened. The mailings, which contained the words "Important message from..." in their title, included an attachment listing pornographic Internet sites.

Two computer experts, the head of a software company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a doctoral student in Sweden, independently traced Melissa to a user calling himself VicodinES after the name of a medical pain killer. VicodinES, in turn, had a page on a website called SourceofKaos, which is operated by Access Orlando and posts several pages that discuss computer viruses. In a further twist, the user name appears to have been stolen from an innocent American OnLine user in Washington state.

The source of the virus was traced by tracking a serial number embedded in Microsoft Office software programs. The virus spread through the use of a "macro", an electronic means of performing complex tasks at the touch of a button which in this case meant replicating rogue e-mail messages.

The FBI has refused to comment on progress in its investigation, but the Cambridge software expert, Richard Smith of Phar Lap Software, has passed on several names in confidence that may lead to the arrest of a suspect. The virus creator, described in some reports as being of "high- schoolish age" with a track record of writing rogue computer programs, faces a fine of up to $250,000 and a jail sentence as long as 10 years.

The operator of SourceofKaos, Roger Sibert, has said he would do whatever he could to prevent the further spread of Melissa but refused to release VicodinES's e-mail address unless he receives a court order.

Melissa itself has largely been eradicated.