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Social Disease

Bugbear, the latest computer virus, forwards your e-mails to everyone you know -- and for some, it's scarier than smallpox.

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What the hell is this?" Sarika Chawla, an entertainment publicist, shouted out the other day. Mysteriously, while checking her e-mail at work, she came across a message concerning someone else's . . . irritable-bowel syndrome. "Don't worry," a co-worker assured her. "It's just the Bugbear virus."

Like that's really reassuring. Bugbear, as more and more New Yorkers are discovering, is a computer virus that arrives stealthily via an e-mail (one sly subject line reads "thanks for last night"), then "spoofs" your address book, causing stored messages to go out to random addresses in your computer. A recipient of such shrapnel is safe -- it's the unwitting sender who has to worry. In other words, if you were trying to have a discreet exchange with your doctor about your irritated bowels, it could end up in a publicist's office.

Imagine: a computer virus with the potential to cause not technical but social meltdowns. Your boss gets the rant about him! Your best friend finds out who else her boyfriend is sleeping with!

"I always felt so safe and uninhibited e-mailing. Bugbear has changed my entire perspective," grumbles Jane Thynne, a British writer whose juicy e-mail correspondence with a New York editor went astray. "I don't think I've offended anyone -- but there are people I haven't heard from in a while and I'm too scared to ring them up and ask!"

One prominent business writer recently received a call from a bank executive saying he'd somehow been sent the writer's entire contact list. "Which is exactly what you don't want," sighs the writer. "How do you get rid of it?" That's the problem. Killing the bug is easy enough (www.symantec.com will do it for free), but it's hard to know if you have it until someone calls to say, "Um, I got a rather curious e-mail from you." Which is why some New Yorkers are taking preemptive measures. "I have to go," says a frazzled NBC researcher. "My in-box is about to get a serious cleaning."


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