Beware Of Spam Selling Cheap Software

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2003-03-10 Print this article Print

Just because the page has a yellow background doesn't mean it's Symantec selling the software.

I recently designed, ran and wrote a review for PC Magazine of desktop antispam tools. I get a lot of spam and most of it is offensive in one way or another, but perhaps the most dangerous spam Ive seen over the last year is a wave of messages selling deep-discounted copies of Symantec utility software, such as Norton SystemWorks. The first time I saw one of these immediately I knew something was wrong. First, the message was obviously unsolicited and real companies like Symantec dont do stuff like that. Second, the product was discounted far below normal prices, on the order of $30 for a $100 product. (There were no notes in the email about the software falling off a truck.)
Ive gotten a lot of spam like this over the last year and almost all of it is for Symantec utilities. This is not an accident: When Microsoft instituted Windows Product Activation in Windows XP it began to shut the door on piracy. There are other reasons Windows isnt sold in this way; most people get their Windows with their computer for one. But Symantec has the second most popular line of retail software on the market, which is why they are the main target for these sorts of scams.
The inevitable result is that Symantec will be introducing DRM (Digital Rights Management) in their 2004 line of products to come out much later this year, and its already instituted in ESD (Electronic Software Distribution, the copies you buy and download) versions. DRM to Symantec is not the same thing as copy protection; the main point of it is to confirm that you have a legitimate copy sold by Symantec. It stinks that money should be wasted on stuff like this, but I dont blame them. They have to protect their property rights. (The next obvious question, once Symantec seriously impedes this piracy with DRM, is whos next? Intuit is already using DRM, at least in TurboTax, to some nasty reviews, but perhaps games vendors are next.) I spoke to Symantec about the problem and they confirmed that these messages are almost inevitably sales of pirated software. If you actually try and buy the software (which they have people do in order to collect evidence with which to pursue the perps) youll usually get just a disk, or perhaps even just a download. But it gets worse. According to William Plante, Symantecs Director, Worldwide Security and Brand Protection, many of these counterfeit software scams are also credit card scams. Buy the software and you can get yourself in more trouble than you imagined. Symantec says that they go after these people, especially when they find ancillary scams. The most important thing to do is to shut off the web site through which business is done, and usually the ISP will cooperate when presented with evidence. Actually busting the people involved is more difficult, since they could be anywhere in the world, but they say that law enforcement is usually anxious to pursue these matters and there have been many arrests. Of course, Symantecs customer support people get to take the guff from the unfortunate customers who bought the software. Plante says that they have had reports of failures to install and even hard drive corruption; theoretically its possible for software pirates to add things like spyware to the software, but I assume its usually easier for them just to copy the software. Probably some consumers realize theres something wrong with the deal because of the great price, but perhaps they think its an OEM version thats not legally for sale separately; old OEM copies of DOS and Windows are frequently resold like this. But beware, because most Symantec products, including SystemWorks, are never sold through OEMs. In a way its no different from any other sales situation – if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. And getting it in spam is like being called at from an alley with a "psst – hey buddy, wanna buy a watch?" What do you expect? Larry Seltzer has been in the computer industry and writing about it since 1983.
Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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