Media coverage of computer-viruses like the Melissa Virus and the Love Bug worm has tended to highlight losses incurred by large corporations. But a study released Thursday by polling firm Ipsos-Reid claims individuals are suffering significantly as well.

The study says nearly half of all adult Canadian Internet users have caught a computer virus, and more than three-quarters of the nation’s Netizens fear a virus attack.

Chris Ferneyhough, vice-president of technology research for Ipsos-Reid, said that while he suspects most heavy Internet users are sufficiently virus-weary, he thinks neophytes are less cognizant of the risks.

“In a way it’s surprising,” Ferneyhough said of the study. Ferneyhough said he spends about 15 hours online each week and exercises caution around email attachments. “But in a way it’s not. People that are new are naïve and trusting.”

The consumer-virus study is part of Ipsos-Reid’s larger “Canadian Interactive Reid Report.” Ipsos-Reid said its national sample of 1,000 interviewees represents the approximately 12.4 million Canadian adult Internet users who spend at least one hour online each week. The study included not only individuals, but also SOHO (Small Office, Home Office) users. Ferneyhough admitted the sample’s demographics would skew towards young, affluent males.

According to the study, 46 per cent of Canadian adult Net users have been hit with a computer virus. Thirty-nine per cent have had their computers fixed because of a virus attack, the study said.

Considering these numbers, Ferneyhough said, it’s not shocking that a full 78 per cent of Canadian adult users fear a virus attack.

“If they haven’t been hit themselves, they know someone who has,” Ferneyhough said.

The study also suggested anti-virus software makers are benefiting from this fear. According to the study, 61 per cent of Canadian Internet users have purchased anti-virus software. Another 21 per cent said their computers had anti-virus software pre-installed, though Ferneyhough said the majority of that 21 per cent did not consider the included anti-virus software a major factor in their computer purchase.

Ferneyhough did not deny viruses can be transmitted via downloads, but he said the vast majority of users are infected through e-mail attachments they open.

“The feeling I get is that it’s address books getting infected by e-mail,” he said.

Both the Love Bug and the Melissa Virus were transmitted through email attachments. Ipsos-Reid claims the Love Bug resulted in losses of US$8.7 billion to companies worldwide.

While critics have argued that software makers, particularly Microsoft, bear some responsibility for the easy proliferation of viruses, Ferneyhough said evading viruses comes down to user education.

“If the average user can become educated, it would help,” he said, stressing that users should never open attachments from sources they don’t trust. “To put the onus on the software companies would be impossible.”

This is the first time Ipsos-Reid has done this study on the consumer market. Ferneyhough said he was also without corporate figures with which to compare this study’s results.

According to Ipsos-Reid, 68 per cent of Canadian adults have Internet access and 61 per cent have received e-mail.

The Ipsos-Reid study is considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points 95 per cent of the time.

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