Cops nab first Italian virus suspect

Police say they have charged a man with writing the 'Vierika' virus

Italian police have arrested a man suspected of writing the Vierika computer virus, similar to the Kournikova virus which overloaded computer systems around the world last month. The man -- whose identity was not immediately available -- is believed to be the first Italian charged with virus writing.

In a twist, however, Vierika is not believed to have caused much damage. Industry experts said the Italian authorities appear to be making an example out of the suspect, to discourage other virus writers.

The virus spreads in an email with the subject heading "Vierika is here". The message includes a file called vierika.jpg.vbs, which, when run, changes the security settings of Internet Explorer and changes the browser's home page to an Italy-based Web page.

When Explorer connects to the page, it downloads code which rearranges files on the computer's hard disk and re-mails itself to the names in the user's address book. It does not destroy files.

In its operations Vierika is similar to worm viruses such as Kournikova and the notorious "Love Bug", which caused billions of pounds of computer damage in May 2000. Unlike those viruses, however, Vierika is only known to have spread to a few computer networks after first being spotted a few weeks ago.

"It did pretty much nothing at all," said Peter Cooper, UK head of tech support with Sophos Anti-Virus.

But the Guardia di Finanzia di Milano, the Italian financial police who arrested the Vierika suspect, and other authorities are increasingly anxious to show that they have the power to crack down on virus writers. Most recently, a 20-year-old Dutch man was charged with "disturbing a computer network" after he turned himself in for writing the Kournikova virus. The Kournikova suspect could face a maximum sentence of four years in prison. "In an ideal world, every virus writer would be reprimanded or disciplined in some way and made to pay for his crime," said Cooper. "In many countries it is a crime as opposed to just a mild inconvenience."

ZDNet Italy contributed to this report.

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