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MORE DANGEROUS THAN ANY VIRUS, WORM OR SPYWARE, INSIDIOUS ELECTRONIC MESSAGES ARE FLOODING THE IN BOXES OF COUNTLESS WOMEN

(Editor's note: Names have been changed to protect the inept.)

The Computer Emergency Response Center at Carnegie Mellon found it first. Engineers sent out an Internet-wide vulnerability alert. Security companies such as Symantec quickly updated their virus software. EBay sent out a warning to customers. Yahoo posted a notice on its Web page.

A deadly scourge is haunting the Internet: the romantic e-mail of the inept man.

It has apparently plagued the Internet for years, but intensifies annually in the middle of February, around the holiday known as Valentine's Day. Most often targeted are the e-mail accounts of women. Once they're hit, there is no limit to the destruction caused.

There are several subtle variants. One is "the hormonal strain". The author sits back in the quiet, unthreatening comfort of his offices--full of naive, hopeful lust--and launches the Hail Mary.

Plain Text found this specimen quarantined in the in box of Miriam.

"Miriam, I will probably have Thanksgiving with my landlord. I live in what you would call a duplex. I have my own entrance to get in. You are welcome anytime. It is not as big as yours but one bedroom is fine for me. I really do not have room for a shindig. But you can come over if you want. It might just be me and you. That is probably all I have room for in my place. Let me know."

Some authors of this variant take even fewer steps to disguise their intentions. Another victim, Mina, received this e-mail after meeting a handsome stranger in the New York City subway and exchanging business cards. It's a worm, sent by a worm. "Come to my house after work, can you? I'll pick you up after work and I'll take you home with me. C'mon ... go ahead."

She declined, replying that he was leaving a bad taste in her mouth. He wrote back with sarcasm, "You are a very classy lady and I am being a sewer rat." Later, he mailed her business card back to her.

In the old days before the Internet, gentlemen had three ways to ply their romantic trade: "the lean," "the grope" and "the discussion". Today, women suffer under the tyranny of the discussion--but from a distance, thanks to men too timid to risk face-to- face rejection.

Here's another variant--"the inarticulate Trojan." This specimen was received by Abigail: "I just wanted to say something else before you leave [town] ... I feel bad for saying that it was your fault and not mine that we didn't work out. I really didn't mean that. I just was frustrated and disappointed. I really have no idea why we didn't work out. It was supposed to work. We had so much in common. The chemistry was just not there. I think some garden Nome (sic) stole the chemistry and hid it in his hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere."

Imagine these malware writers, overcome by cowardice, content to lob emotional grenades into their beloved's bunkers from miles away.

Here's another "inarticulate Trojan," this one sent to Emily: "My Passion for life keeps me buzzing day and night! You have never seen so many little things that can inspire such huge results in a guy of the old school. I'm a renaissance man who will keep you on your toes. I am an avid cook, and would enjoy sharing some of my yummy dishes with you. Besides, cake batter and delicious sauces can be used for so many different applications. Wink, Wink! Is that too playful this early on?"

There is a third variant, "impulsiveware." It is mistakenly released into the wild by its author, like this message sent to Lori at 1:37 a.m. after a night of cocktails at a local bar with a new male friend.

Subject: Points To Be Discussed Over A Proper Drink

No. 1: You arrived home okay--the most important.

No. 2: That I must tell you more about [name of company].

No. 3: That I must buy you another drink.

No. 4: That you're gorgeous.

No. 5: That you made this night a most pleasant surprise.

No. 6: That we must discuss further gossip.

No. 7: That given you and I both hang out at the same place we must discuss further gossip.

No. 8: That you're gorgeous. Shhh ... Don't tell a soul.

The next day, the new friend realized that his impulsiveware had escaped into the wild. Another e-mail to Lori followed, with the subject line: "midnight gremlins," apologizing with profuse embarrassment.

Finally, we come to the fourth and last variant: "the insane virus." Kim is a New York Yankees fan living in Boston. During the baseball playoffs last year, as the rival cities were engaged in a fierce nine-day contest, she had the misfortune to be dating a diehard Boston fan who refused to see her. When she pressed him, he fired off this insane virus:

"Yankee fans are evil, plain and simple. They don't respect the game ... I'm telling you, I've been avoiding this so we don't hate each other. This is hard for me, it's always been a rule not to get involved with a Yankee fan. They're evil."

Kim's response: "You need help." Needless to say, they didn't see each other again.

So how can a guy using e-mail to set a safe foundation with a woman avoid succumbing to this raging epidemic of patheticness? We asked a few victims. Mina, the target of the subway e-mailer, wrote: "A romantic e-mail is difficult to define but I have found that it includes honesty, passion, humor, a bit of mystery and openness. It's nice to include a compliment or two but not too many, as it can be perceived as being over zealous. Aggressiveness and raunchiness can seriously make a romantic e-mail a turn-off."

Emily weighed in, "Good writing is always attractive. If the writer's voice is clear and easy, if he writes like he speaks and thinks, if you can recognize him, that's a great start." Only when men are profligate with their affection while trying to keep a safe distance, she adds, is the e-mail officially inept.

So take it on authority. Guard your in box--and outbox--this Valentine's Day week. We have no idea when Microsoft will come up with a patch for this scourge.

And men: e-mail is never a substitute for flowers.