When a strange error message appears on your computer screen or something really odd happens the chances are there’s something wrong with your PC, but not always… It could be the work of a virus of course, but before you take any action do a mental checklist on the following:


·        Does anyone else have easy access to your PC?

·        Does the ‘fault’ or your reaction to it appear to amuse those around you?

·        Does anyone have a grudge against you or a score to settle?

·        Is it April the 1st, your birthday or your first/last day of work?


If you answer, “Yes” to any of those questions it is just possible you are the victim of a practical joke. There are scores of programs available for download from the Internet that can make your PC (or Mac) do all kinds of very peculiar things, from generating authentic-looking error messages, to turning the display upside down, immobilising the mouse or pretending to wipe the hard disc.


Most ‘prank’ programs are relatively harmless and short-lived but there are some quite malicious ones out there. Moreover they can be a real source of concern to the sufferer, especially those of a nervous disposition and novice users probably won’t think it’s very funny. Jokes can also backfire. Apart from the time these things waste, interfering with someone else’s PC is certainly not something we can condone; it could result in a loss of data, or even lead to genuine faults and there are privacy issues to consider. However, we don’t want to get too po-faced about it all, a lot of PC-oriented japes can be genuinely funny; in any event we feel justified in looking at this subject in some detail since an awareness of the PC pranksters secrets means you’ll be forewarned and forearmed, and less likely to get caught out.


The Internet is awash with prank programs; some of them are most ingenious. The scariest ones are those that mimic genuine Windows events. A typical example is one called Fake Delete. When activated it displays a dialogue box asking the user if they want to delete the contents of their PC’s C: drive. Naturally most people immediately click the “No” button but the program starts and appears to delete files. No amount of frantic clicking on the cancel button will stop it. Of course it doesn’t really erase any files and after a minute of two or this torture a ‘gotcha’ message appears.


Fake Format works in a similar manner except that this time it looks as though your hard disc drive is being formatted. Prank programs that do odd things to the display or desktop are a lot less cruel and most users quickly realise that they’ve been ‘had’. If the icons on your desktop suddenly start falling to the bottom of the screen, bounce off the sides or slowly and almost imperceptibly move around the screen your PC has almost certainly been spiked with CrazyIcons, Sneaky Icons or SlippingIcons. If the screen suddenly develops a nasty case of the jitters it’s probably due to EarthQuake or Shakedown. ClickMe and CatchMe both generate a button labelled ‘Click’, when you try to click on it; it vanishes and appears in another part of the screen.


Keystroke Panic is one of a number of programs that target the keyboard. When you start typing, instead of the letters you’ve pressed, a message prepared by your tormentor appears on the screen. Several programs make the mouse behave in mysterious ways. MouseDrift makes the pointer wobble around when it has been left alone for more than a few seconds, Finger randomly changes the pointer into a hand, with an extended index finger and Viagra makes the pointer grow, and grow, then shrink, with accompanying sound effects… Belching sounds and other peculiar noises coming from your PC are almost certainly due to programs like Random Burper and if the CD-ROM draw opens unexpectedly Cup Holder and OpenCD are prime suspects.


If you have a suspicion that someone has been meddling with your PC check for new items in the StartUp folder listed under Programs on the Start menu, also look in My Documents for any unfamiliar entries and go to Run on the Start menu and type ‘recent’ to check for any files or programs that have been run since you last used the PC. If you are at all concerned about others loading programs onto your PC without permission you should have a look at the recent Boot Camp articles on setting up System Policies (September 7th and 14th) on the Electronic Telegraph archive at They deal with the Windows utility Poledit, which can be used to control access to your machine.


Finally a word or two on fake and hoax emails, (but not viruses and worms; they’ll be taken care of by your constantly updated anti-virus precautions, won’t they…?) Apparently genuine but odd messages, even if they appear to come from the boss or a trusted colleague, should always be treated with suspicion and do not open an attachment unless you are absolutely certain of its origin. If you are in any doubt over the contents of an email don’t take chances, contact the sender. The name or address on the “From” line of an e-mail is easily faked. You can run a cursory check in programs like Outlook Express by right-clicking on the email icon in your Inbox, select Properties and then the Details tabs and this will show you who sent it and the route it took to get to you. If you are still suspicious compare it with the properties of a valid message from the same sender. Chain letters, pleas for help, get rich quick schemes and so on should go straight in the bin and use your e-mail program’s Message Rules or Filter facilities to weed out future instances from the same sender.







Next week – connecting to laptops and handheld PCs





Process that prepares a disc drive for use by effectively deleting all of the data on it by creating a new filing structure



A facility in Outlook Express that automatically ignores or disposes of email messages from nominated addresses/senders



Folder in containing programs that load automatically after Windows



If you are using Internet Explorer version 5 (or above) there’s a simple way to print out your list of Favourite web sites, along with their addresses or ‘URLs’. Open Internet Explorer and opt to work offline, go to the File menu then select Import and Export and click Next when the ‘Wizard’ dialogue box appears. In the ‘action to perform’ window choose Export Favourites, then Next. This should lead you to a file called bookmark.htm, and the Wizard will ask you where you want to send it; the default location of My Documents should be okay. After saving the file open it in your browser Windows using Open on the File menu then click Print on the file menu. This will open a dialogue box, put a check into the box next to ‘Print table of Links’ and click OK.

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