April Fools’ Day is a time of mirth. Funny stories do the rounds in the press such as chickens laying square eggs complete with pictures and the Queen setting up a fracking rig in the grounds of Buckingham Place. But a word to the wise, as a ‘calendar day’ April Fools’ Day is also used by online tricksters. Discover some of the funny, or not so funny viruses, that have tricked people in the past and arm yourself with some simple information to keep you safe.

With April Fools’ Day just around the corner you would do well to look out for yourself and be mindful of the some of the tricks designed to hook you on this day of jokers.

It’s been quite some time since there was a large viral infection attributed to April Fools’ Day specifically but that said it doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen. Many cyber villains link their attacks to ‘calendar’ day such as Aprils’ Fool or Christmas because it increases their chance of success.

Viruses that have fooled people in the past

But before we get to that, let’s look at some the viruses that have fooled people in the past. They might not be directly attributed to April Fools’ Day but they do provide a flavour of the tricks that online pranksters play.

  • ILOVEYOU virus

The ILOVEYOU virus spread through e-mail. Thousands of people received an e-mail with ‘I Love you’ in the subject and attachment in the e-mail caused lots of trouble. Once you clicked on the attachment, no love was spread, but a virus started infecting your computer. It copied itself several times and hid in several folders on the victim's hard drive. The virus didn’t steal hearts, but passwords and sent that personal information to a hacker’s e-mail address.

  • The Stoned or Marijuana Virus

This virus belongs to the stone age of the computer era. It was first seen in New Zealand in 1988. The original version did not cause any real damage; it simply displayed the message "Your computer is stoned. Legalize Marijuana" on your screen. However, the 90 odd variants of the virus (with names as random as Donald Duck, Hawaii, Rostov, Smithsonian, StonedMutation and more) did do considerable damage to the Master Boot Record and File Allocation Table in the hard disk.

This virus was created by a Japanese guy. It replaced a lot of files on the hard drive, from images to programs, with pictures of squid. But the creator couldn’t escape from the long tentacles of the Tokyo police. It’s estimated that the virus infected between 20,000 and 50,000 computers.

Halloween fans may find this a funny virus but we doubt that the victims felt the same way. This virus, aimed at smartphones, was first seen on Nokia smartphones in 2004. Users infected with the virus found their screen icons replaced with skulls and crossbones and their handsets reduced to mere telephones. They could only make and receive calls, other smart functions were disabled. The malware spread through Bluetooth connections and used up battery power by constantly searching for other devices with open Bluetooth connections to infect.

  • Storm Worm

Storm Worm capitalized on our collective fear of bad weather and first spread via an e-mail message with the subject line “230 dead as storm batters Europe.” Once the attachment was open, a Trojan backdoor and a rootkit forced the PC to join a botnet. Botnets are armies of zombie computers that can be used to, among other things, send out tons of spam. And this one sucked in ten million computers.

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April Fools’ Day news – spot the spoof

Many April Fools’ pranks come straight out of the media who love to get in on the act, as well as advertisers and search engine operators. Last year, in the UK at least, we had stories about chickens laying square eggs, and the Queen fracking in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, though we were spared a picture of her in Wellington boots and shovel in hand. Shame about that.

Other stories included Scotland to be ruled by a German duke, a ban on selfies (perhaps not a bad idea), Piers Morgan to advise the Lib Dems, One Direction banned from North Korea, the blue from the Union Jack to disappear and Scotland to switch to driving on the right if it won the election.

We also had a Vegemite drink, from Google a magic hand so smartphone users won’t even have to lift their fingers to use their phones, and website Reddit lauching a new browsing tool that responds to head nods, frowning and looks of surprise.

Enjoy the mirth – but don’t be a fool

You get the picture; April Fools’ Day pranks are quite the thing and have infilitrated the mainstream for a long time now. There’s also quite a few websites that offer roundups of all the April Fools’ Day shenanigans. But some are also fake. To check the veracity of these sites and to make sure you’re not being fooled, make sure there’s a locked padlocked symbol in the URL browser bar which tells you the site is safe.

And this point is worth ramming home. Whatever means cyber crooks try to pull you in, whether its email phishing or urgent imperatives to visit a web site and input your personal details, be especially cautious and more so if you receive an email directing you to bank and payment system websites. These emails are unfortunately common and will typically start with an email that says there has been a suspicious transaction on your account, a loan has been approved, or your card is blocked and so on.

The email won’t contain details but will urge you to click a link and enter your name, password and probably card number. But the link takes you to a fake site instead of a real one. It looks exactly the same, but sends all the information you entered to cybercriminals instead of your bank.

It's also common for fraudsters to create fake websites to operations like Facebook and Gmail as well large and well known online retailers and ticket booking sites. To make sure you’re not sucked in make sure you’ve got good internet security.

So the watch word this Aprils’ Fool Day should be enjoy the mirth, but don’t be a fool.