worddocviruses_lgHere’s what you may already know: Computer viruses are like small software programs. Typically, they are downloaded inadvertently, buried within a file. When you open the file, the virus activates. The virus could damage your system, steal your identity information, infect files that you send out or even send itself to everyone in your email address book from your return address.

But what you might not know is that viruses sneak in through the Microsoft Word files that you often receive via email. Your own documents could be an open door for viruses to wreak havoc on your computer. And in the end, computer viruses and other forms of malicious software (malware) cause billions of pounds in damage and untold anguish for victims of identity theft each year.

Q. Why are Word files vulnerable?

A. Because Microsoft Word files are commonly exchanged, Word viruses have become widespread. Here’s how it works:

  • Microsoft Word files contain small programs called "macros," which are customisable shortcuts that automate tasks such as formatting text or applying bullet lists.

  • The macro programming language can also be used to write viruses.

  • The virus can be sent as part of a Word document.

  • The virus automatically activates when you open the Word file.

Q. How can I get tricked into opening a virus-laden Word file?

A. Hackers use a variety of ruses to persuade you to open a virus-infected Word file. They may:

  • Spoof the address of a friend, a business or an old friend.

  • Pretend to be the sender of an important message from your bank, the IRS or a lottery you’ve won.

  • Use topical lures. Last year, for example, when worldwide attention was focused on pro-democracy protests in Myanmar, hackers circulated an infected Word file purporting to be a message of support from the Dalai Lama.

Q. How can I protect myself?

A. Use these tips to avoid Word viruses:

  • Only open email attachments that are expected and that come from a trusted source.

  • Use Internet security software that automatically scans email attachments for viruses and other malicious software before opening them.

  • Delete any suspect messages without opening them.

  • Do not click on web links or download files sent through emails or instant messages by someone you don’t know.

The bottom line: Be wary of any file sent to you as an email attachment, even an innocent-looking Microsoft Word file. These files could contain viruses or other malicious software that might damage your system or steal your identity information. And always use Internet security programs to protect against viruses, spyware and spam.

Jennifer Martinez is a freelance writer with a specialty in family computer topics.

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