No joke in April Fool’s Day computer worm

(CNN) — A computer-science detective story is playing out on the Internet as security experts try to hunt down a worm called Conficker C and prevent it from damaging millions of computers on April Fool’s Day.

The anti-worm researchers have banded together in a group they call the Conficker Cabal. Members are searching for the malicious software program’s author and for ways to do damage control if he or she can’t be stopped.

They’re motivated in part by a $250,000 bounty from Microsoft and also by what seems to be a sort of Dick Tracy ethic.

“We love catching bad guys,” said Alvin Estevez, CEO of Enigma Software Group, which is one of many companies trying to crack Conficker. “We’re like former hackers who like to catch other hackers. To us, we get almost a feather in our cap to be able to knock out that worm. We slap each other five when we’re killing those infections.”

The malicious program already is thought to have infected between 5 million and 10 million computers.

Those infections haven’t spawned many symptoms, but on April 1 a master computer is scheduled to gain control of these zombie machines, said Don DeBolt, director of threat research for CA, a New York-based IT and software company.

What happens on April Fool’s Day is anyone’s guess.

The program could delete all of the files on a person’s computer, use zombie PCs — those controlled by a master — to overwhelm and shut down Web sites or monitor a person’s keyboard strokes to collect private information like passwords or bank account information, experts said.

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