More Than A Nuisance

By Jim Rapoza  |  Posted 2003-06-16

Quick question. how would you feel if this column, which appears to be a technology-oriented opinion column, were just a front to trick you into buying and installing a product you probably dont need?

You probably wouldnt be happy. And even if I succeeded in making you purchase the product, I doubt youd become a repeat customer. So why is it that so many Web-based companies think its good business to trick people into becoming potential customers?

Youve seen them, pop-up ads that dont appear to be regular Web advertisements. Instead, they try to look just like standard Windows operating system dialogs, right down to OK buttons and minimize/maximize options in the window corners.

These ads try to trick novice users into thinking their systems arent secure, often by pointing out that they are doing unsecure things such as broadcasting their IP address—never mind that thats just how the Internet works. When users click on the OK button in the ad, they are typically taken to a Web page where they are persuaded to download or purchase software to protect their systems. Beyond the fact that you probably dont want to use security products from a company that starts out by tricking you, most of these products are useless and can harm many systems.

For the most part, these ads will appear only to those using Internet Explorer. But since the targets of these scam artists are mainly novice users, they probably arent worried about the Mozilla/Opera crowd.

Fortunately, one of these purveyors of fake user interface advertising recently took a big hit in court. Bonzi Software, one of the worst offenders in this area, settled a class action suit against it and agreed to stop using fake user interface pop-up ads.

However, dont expect wide curtailment of this type of behavior any time soon. Like most companies that abuse the Web for their own gains, many of these companies will simply change their tactics.

One that recently popped up, literally, on my radar is the Internet Security Advisor advertisement. This pop-up window advertisement, at first glance, looks similar to the Windows update dialogs that one receives from Microsoft.

Adding to the believability, the advertisement uses standard browser calls to display the users operating system information. Staying true to form, the advertisement categorically states that the system is possibly vulnerable to security problems.

Now what are many nonexpert Windows users going to do when confronted with such a window? It certainly seems to know a lot about the system, and it looks like a Microsoft thing. If users click on the ad, they are taken to a Web page that lists all the horrible things their system could be vulnerable to and then advises them to purchase and install Winferno Softwares SecureIE browser plug-in.

Just picture a few of the more novice users in your company faced with fake user interface pop-up ads. Probably the first thing theyll do is freeze, thinking, "Oh no, my system is messed up." Then maybe theyll save all their work and shut down all their applications. Finally, theyll put in a desperate call to the help desk, saying that their system is broken.

At this point, this user has probably lost a good half-hour or more of productivity. And now someone from your IT department is going to have to tell the user that nothing is wrong. How much did this stupid advertisement just cost your company?

Its good to see that groups are taking legal action against this kind of activity, but I still wonder why it exists at all. Whats the business sense in tricking people into using your software? If you think its a good product, shouldnt it be able to stand on its own merits? And if it isnt a good product, doesnt it make more sense to pull it or improve it rather than trying to fool people into throwing their money away on it?

But these vendors arent just scamming novice users. They may also be scamming your company out of valuable employee time and resources.

East Coast Technical Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at

Rocket Fuel