February 18, 2005 9:24 AM PST

Cabir mobile virus found in U.S.

A version of the Cabir virus has turned up in two Nokia 6600s on display in a California cell phone store, in what is believed to be the first "on-the-ground" sighting of the virus in the United States.

Just how the phones were infected isn't known, but it would have been very easy, given that both were on public display in the Santa Monica, Calif., shop's window. Anyone walking past the store could have dosed the handsets via their built-in Bluetooth antennas. In announcing the infection, antivirus company F-Secure did not specify exactly when the infections were discovered.

Two sources familiar with the sighting said the phones in the window could have been spreading Cabir to passers-by; although additional instances haven't been reported. A Nokia representative had no immediate comment.

Since its first sighting in June, the Cabir virus has morphed from a harmless concept to warn handset makers into much more malicious versions now found in a dozen countries, including Finland, where Nokia is headquartered, the United Kingdom and Singapore. It's by far the most damaging of the small family of cell phone viruses to date. F-Secure identified the U.S. infections as Cabir.H and Cabir.I.

Cabir and the growing number of cell phone viruses mainly target three mobile operating systems: Symbian, Windows Mobile and a third in use by NTT DoCoMo, one of the largest cell phone operators in Japan. The malicious software has destroyed files, forced phones to dial expensive 900 numbers or 911, and made them crumble under denial-of-service attacks, in which the device gets so much inbound traffic it can't function properly.

While instances of infected phones are still extremely rare, each serves as a warning of the day when the threat of downloading a virus on a phone is as great as it is now on personal computers, said David Sym-Smith, a senior vice president at Innopath, which recently began working to deliver a version of security specialist McAfee's software for handsets.

"No, these viruses are not crippling everybody," Sym-Smith said. "But there have been so many proofs of concepts, you're going to get copycats. So the industry is taking a heavier look right now."

The industry is scrambling as never before to put up adequate blockades. Security was a high priority in the latest release of the Symbian operating system. Microsoft has vowed to tighten up its overall security, while Japan's DoCoMo is among the first to create an antivirus program for its subscribers to use. Other carriers are expected to follow.

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