On Christmas day, users who haven't updated their antivirus software may find a lump of coal where their computer used to be. Media coverage called the new and malignant virus, known as Win32.Kriz.3862, or Christmas or Kriz for short, more malevolent than the Chernobyl virus that toasted 300,000 computers a few months back.
The Chernobyl virus generated a deluge of doom-mongering press, but many reports failed to mention that the virus did most of its damage in Asia, where antivirus software is not in widespread use.
Kriz, which runs on Windows 95, 98 and NT and carries a payload that destroys hard-disk data and the machine's ability to reboot, risks stirring the same hype.
Not yet rampant in the wild
The San Francisco Chronicle's Tom Stein filed the most extensive, and scariest, story on the virus, which was mailed to antivirus company Central Command. But he failed to balance the news of Kriz's obvious damage potential with the fact that the virus has barely been seen outside of a laboratory.
And Stein either misheard or misreported what a Symantec antivirus expert said: the total number of viruses in circulation is not 200, it's nearer to 20,000.
David Bank's Wall Street Journal coverage sounded the necessary note of realism, as he noted that Kriz has been spotted only once "in the wild", and he quoted a virus researcher's assessment of its danger rating as "low to medium".
MSNBC's Bob Sullivan reported that there's plenty of time in the next four months for people to download antidotes to the virus. Sullivan probed the virus writer's psyche with quotes from text Kriz displays on a victim's screen before savaging a computer's innards, and speculated that the author may harbour anti- religious sentiments - mildly interesting but not very helpful.