I love you! It seems heartless to recommend ignoring such a friendly message during the week of Valentine’s Day, but a computer security expert says it could mean protecting yourself from a destructive computer-virus attack. Doug Jacobsen, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Iowa State University, says if you’re on the Internet you’re exposed to some dangerous stuff.

He says you’re going to be subject to viruses and other kinds of bad software, which are lumped together under the term mal-ware. Their goal is to take over your computer. They all have destructive intent, but some will turn your PC into a virus factory, sending out more copies of the evil programs. And often, they find ways to make you cooperate in putting the evil program onto your own computer.

They can just come right and e-mail it to you. Lately, they’ll send a headline saying "Fidel is Dead," or "China Sets Off Nuclear Explosion" or some other attention-getting headline, and something’s attached that looks like it might be a video clip. But when you click on it, you install the software program on your computer. It’s like a horror film, as your computer turns into a zombie thing without your even realizing it.

What they like to do is turn your computer into a ‘but, a thing that’s under their control. They use the bot to send out loads of spam, unwanted junk e-mail. If you’ve downloaded some of this malware and they’ve taken over your computer, Jacobsen says, you likely won’t even know what’s happening. "You could be asleep, or sitting there watching ‘Seinfeld,’ and your computer could be out there raising havoc on the net." He says you should avoid infection just like you do human viruses…by avoiding dangerous places and not having much to do with strangers.

He says if you get an e-mail from a stranger you’ve never heard of that claims to contain a video clip or directs you to go to their website, don’t. "You didn’t win the lottery, and the guy in Nigeria isn’t going to send you money." It’s always a good idea to get a program that helps detect mal-ware and spyware programs placed on your computer, and to have a good quality virus-protection program installed.