Melissa spawns more offspring

More new variants of Melissa are spreading as hackers try to outdo each other. Anti-virus experts expect the variant strains to continue over the next several weeks before they die down.

However, Computer Associates Inc. says the viruses should be easy to kill because anti-virus software updated to fend off Melissa also catches its variants.

The latest Melissa offspring to crop up is nicknamed Syndicate, which has surfaced on multiple user groups. Although there haven't been any reports of the virus actually hitting sites, experts expect it to surface and spread soon.

Syndicate takes the nasty Melissa scourge one step further, letting the owner of one e-mail address track its spread. The so-called Syndicate virus, reported by Computer Associates, acts just like Melissa -- except that it sends out 70 e-mails, 69 that spread the virus to others, and one to the e-mail address project1@nym.alias.net that reads "Guess whos infected:" followed by the e-mail of the person who just received the virus. The e-mail address appears to be anonymous.

Essentially, Syndicate is helping someone compile an address book of everyone who's been infected by the virus. "Maybe they'll get a message later saying 'ha ha,' " Gordon Twilegar, director of security strategy as Computer Associates, said. "It could also be used to track how successful it is."

Syndicate is particularly chummy, with a subject reading: "Fun and games from" followed by the name of someone you know. Its body reads "Hi! Check out this neat doc I found on the Internet!" Like Melissa, it includes a Word document containing the virus. Like Mad Cow, it is a member of the harder-to-detect class viruses.

The virus joins variants such as Mad Cow, Papa, and Marauder, which have cropped up over the past few days.