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Cellphone viruses? The risk is academic, for now anyway

STOCKHOLM -- Malicious programs that can delete address books. Junk messages that flood a cellphone's inbox. Stealthy code that uses Bluetooth wireless technology to sneak onto handsets.

Security experts say plagues like these will target mobile phones, but others contend cellphone viruses are the tech equivalent of smallpox: To the best of anyone's knowledge, they exist only in labs.

''We've had no reports of people actually seeing these viruses in their daily use," said Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant at London's Sophos PLC. ''The only reports we've seen documented are antivirus researchers sending them to each other in their labs."

Yet the Japanese telephone company NTT DoCoMo already sells phones with built-in antivirus software from McAfee Inc., and McAfee expects similar phones to be available in the United States and Europe in 2005.

Security experts this year found only five viruses that target mobile phones, and all of them were created and contained within labs, Cluley said. Despite names like ''Cabir" and ''Skulls," the cellphone viruses created in the labs aren't as lethal as viruses that have attacked PCs.

For Skulls to work, it had to be downloaded and activated. After that, it rendered a user's programs inoperable and replaced the icons with skulls.

This year, the Russian antivirus company Kaspersky said Cabir could affect Bluetooth-enabled phones that run on the Symbian operating system. According to the company, the virus could easily send itself as a file from its host phone to others, if the Bluetooth reception was on.

Like Skulls, and unlike most PC viruses, Cabir has to be installed by the phone's user before it does anything. Then it creates files on the phone and sends itself to other phones via Bluetooth. Even when installed, though, antivirus company TrendMicro Inc. ranks it as having low damage potential and says it can be removed fairly easily.

Although the virus threat to cellphones is, for now, academic, it doesn't take much to scare phone users. In Lebanon this year, an e-mail warned of a virus that could appear on a cellphone through a phone call.

It read: ''If you receive a phone call and your phone displays ''UNAVAILABLE" on the screen (for most of digital mobile phones with a function to display incoming call telephone number), DON'T ANSWER THE CALL. END THE CALL IMMEDIATELY!!! BECAUSE IF YOU ANSWER THE CALL, YOUR PHONE WILL BE INFECTED BY THIS VIRUS."

Mikko Hypponen, director of F-Secure Corp., said viruses can't spread that way.

Mobile phones could eventually be susceptible to viruses because they use operating systems that turn them into minicomputers.

''You look at the phones that run Microsoft applications, like Excel. These can be e-mailed from a computer to a phone or a PDA [personal digital assistant] and that opens the risk to a virus on the phone," said Brian Petersen, of Denmark-based Virus112.

The organization, which monitors computer viruses worldwide, has added threats to mobile phones to the list of what it tracks.

Other threats come from Bluetooth, which lets people connect their phones and send messages, sync with programs like Outlook, and read e-mail.

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