If Your Computer Catches a Virus on Friday the 13th, Who You Gonna Call? John McAfee

updated 10/16/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/16/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As if black cats and walking under ladders weren't enough, now you can add one more bug to the bugaboos facing you on this Friday, Oct. 13. The new menace is a computer bug, one of those nasty viruses that sneak into computers and start gobbling up electronic gray matter faster than an army of Pac Men. This one, some experts warn, infects not only networks but can be transmitted by the floppy disks in all IBM-compatible machines (there are about 40 million in the U.S.). It will be triggered on Friday when the computers' internal calendars hit Oct. 13.

Ah, but there's no cause for undue concern, says John McAfee, virus exterminator extraordinaire. McAfee, 44, has created a so-called disinfectant program that he says can determine whether the virus has invaded your machine. It then wipes it out and repairs the damage. Centel Federal Systems of Reston, Va., a longtime computer supplier to the government, is selling disks of his program for $25, and so far 140 have been snapped up.

Centel senior analyst Tom Patterson says he was tipped off to the virus by an acquaintance in Europe, where it supposedly originated before being sent stateside this August. The virus spreads when folks link their personal computers by phone to an already-infected program, or when they swap the floppy disks on which programs are stored.

Although there's no telling yet how many machines may be infected, fewer than a dozen cases have turned up so far, according to the Softwear Engineering Institute at Carnegie-Mellon University. "There's no evidence of a major problem. But at the same time we can't emphasize too much the need for precaution," says Bill Vance, a security expert at IBM. After all, viruses hit about 50,000 U.S. computers by July this year, according to McAfee, and in 1988 a Cornell University graduate student even managed to invade a supposedly secret government network.

McAfee's own interest in such skulduggery goes back a bit further. Born in England and raised in Virginia, he was working as a computer programmer for the Missouri Pacific Railroad a few years ago when he became intrigued by a then-current bug called the Pakistani virus. Two years ago he set up his own virus-fighting business in the pink, sunny home in Santa Clara, Calif., that he shares with wife Judy, 35, and their six cats.

Despite his interest in the latest invader, however, McAfee himself believes that fear of infection may be worse than the threat of terminal amnesia itself. "My advice is, ignore it," says the veteran bugbuster, displaying the calm of a country doctor. "There are many more important things to worry about."

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