First email virus turns 10

Chicago (IL) – It appears we have been living with viruses all the time, but if we are looking back in history we find that certain types of viruses are actually not that old. For example, the email-aware virus is turning just 10 today. Melissa, the first virus of this kind, was estimated to have infected more than one million PCs and caused damage in excess of $80 million.

In comparison to the viruses we see today, as well as the possible threat involved, Melissa was not much more than child’s play or a proof of concept – albeit a very potent one. Launched in March of 1999 by 31-year old David Smith, Melissa shut down entire Internet mail systems by clogging corporate email networks with a massive email volume. Carrying the subject line “Here is that document you asked for … don’t show anyone else;-)”, it spread via Microsoft Word 97 and 2000, Excel 97, 2000 and 2003 and mass-mailed itself to the first 50 contacts in Outlook 97 and 98.

It mailed an infected file, LIST.doc, which contained passwords that allowed access to 80 pornographic websites.

There were at least four variants of Melissa, some of which caused much more damage and deleted critical Windows system files.

David Smith from Aberdeen Township in New Jersey created the original Melissa virus and was sentenced to 20 months in prison back in 2002. A judge in New Jersey also fined Smith $5000 and ordered him to stay clear of computer networks or the internet unless authorized by the court.  

Today, Melissa is widely believed to have been the first notable email virus and is, according to MessageLabs, “credited with laying the foundations for the devastating use of botnets that has since allowed cyber criminals to spread malware so rapidly and economically.” The company said it has detected 108 different strains and more than 100,000 copies of the virus to date. MessageLabs said that Melissa remains a constant sight in the malware landscape and about 10 copies are still found every month.

“Melissa was the virus equivalent of the supermodels from the 90’s, known by one name and iconic within the industry,” said Alex Shipp, senior director at MessageLabs services. “This was the first attack of this magnitude and I remember that when the numbers reached the hundreds within the first hour of stopping Melissa, which were significant levels in 1999, we knew the threat landscape had changed evermore.”

The first virus overall is believed to have been the Creeper virus, which has been distributed in the early 1970s. Other notable viruses of the past two decades include “Michelangelo,” which wiped information from millions of computers in 1992; Concept, the first Macro virus, in 1995; CIH (1998), which infected the BIOS of a computer and essentially rendered those computers useless and the ILOVEYOU virus (2000), which is believed to have been the malware causing the most damage so far (an estimated $10 billion).

A history of computer viruses can be found on Wikipedia.