WASHINGTON -- Thousands of Internet users across the U.S. and beyond waited too long or simply didn't believe warnings that they would lose access to the Internet just after midnight Monday because of malware that took over computers around the world more than a year ago.
At 12:01 a.m. Monday, the FBI turned off Internet servers that were functioning as a temporary safety net to keep infected computers online for the past eight months. A court order the agency had gotten to keep the servers running expired and was not renewed.
FBI officials have been tracking the number of computers they believe still may be infected by the malware. As of Sunday night, there were about 41,800 in the U.S., down from 45,600 on July 4. Worldwide, the total is roughly 211,000 infected.
Considering that there are millions of Internet users across the country, several thousand losing access isn't a big deal -- unless you are one of them.
As the deadline approached, Internet service providers set up their own safety nets to allow the affected computers to continue to access the Internet.
AT&T said only a "small percentage" of its customers were affected by the virus. To make sure they can continue to access the Internet, the company will maintain legitimate Internet servers for them through the end of the year. Verizon Communications Inc. said it will "continue to provide extended support to our customers during the month of July -- while continuing to instruct them on the necessary actions they must take to resolve the issue on their computers."
The problem began when international hackers ran an online advertising scam to take control of more than 570,000 infected computers around the world. When the FBI went in to take down the hackers late last year, agents realized that if they turned off the malicious servers being used to control the computers, all the victims would lose their Internet service.
In a highly unusual move, the FBI set up the safety net. They brought in a private company to install two clean Internet servers to take over for the malicious servers so that people would not suddenly lose their Internet.
And they arranged for a private company to run a website, http://www.dcwg.org, to help computer users determine whether their computer was infected and find links to other computer security business sites where they could find fixes for the problem.
From the onset, most victims didn't even know their computers had been infected, although the malicious software probably slowed their web surfing and disabled their antivirus software, making their machines more vulnerable to other problems.
Efforts to solve the issue have been hindered a bit by a few factors: Many computer users don't fully understand how their computers work. And other people simply don't trust the government, and believe that federal authorities are only trying to spy on them, or take over the Internet, by pushing solutions to the infection.
Chester Wisniewski, senior security adviser at computer security firm Sophos, said it would have been better to turn off the safety net earlier.
"There is only so much responsibility the American government has to continue to run this stuff," he said. "If you still have this virus it's likely that you have others."