The Melissa Virus

In the Spring of 1999, the Melissa virus, officially called “W97M/Melissa.A@mm,” was unleashed and paralyzed email servers across the globe. Melissa infected thousands of computers and was one of the first major viruses to cause companies to shut down their emails servers, owing to the deluge of emails that the virus provoked.

Melissa, a macro virus that relied on MS Word 97, 98, NT and Microsoft Outlook, was first distributed as a filed called “LIST.DOC” into an internet discussion group called alt.sex. The file contained passwords to various adult websites.

The payload was delivered as an email to unsuspecting users with a subject line that read, “Important Message from…” and the body of the message said, “Here is that document you asked for…don’t show anyone else ;-).” Attached to the message was the file LIST.DOC file, which when opened kicked off the virus. The virus would then modify both the Windows registry and MS Word normal.dot template, and then replicate by sending itself to the first 50 people in the user’s address book.

On March 26, 1999, Melissa had paralyzed email servers across the globe. On that day, Microsoft was forced to shut down its incoming e-mail service. Intel, Lockheed Martin, Lucent and other Fortune 500 companies were also heavily effected.

The monetary damage of Melissa was estimated at $80 million.

The creator of the virus was programmer David Lee Smith, who was caught when police discovered that the document that had been uploaded to alt.sex came from a user with the email address skyrocket@aol.com. Although this address had been hacked and hijacked by Smith, police were ultimately able to track him down in Eatontown, NJ.

In December 1999, Smith pled guilty to federal charges. Apparently Smith thought of it as a “harmless joke” and didn’t know it would cause so much damage.  At sentencing he told the judge he had made “a colossal mistake.”

While he could have been sentenced to five years in prison, since he cooperated and helped authorities investigate other computer viruses, he was only sentenced to 20 months in federal prison. He was also ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and to perform 100 hours of community service.

Interesting Facts:

  • The virus was named after a Miami stripper.
  • Melissa was considered to be the inspiration for many future famous viruses like Anna Kournikova, The Love Bug, Netsky, and Bagle.
  • The virus would insert the phrase “Twenty-two points, plus triple-word-score, plus fifty points for using all my letters. Game’s over. I’m outta here” into any open MS Word document along with the alias of the author “Kwyjibo”–A reference to The Simpsons cartoon.

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