Security Watch

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Pirated Security Software Worse Than None at All

You lucky duck—you scored a $20 copy of Norton AntiVirus. Not only is your PC now safe from the clutches of bad guys, but you also saved a pretty penny to boot.

Or, then again, not.

After Symantec announced on May 16 that it is filing suit against eight alleged software pirates, I got on the phone with Cris Paden, who handles communications for the company's Brand Protection Task Force. What I wanted to know is, what are the dangers from running a pirated copy of a security product? These are the three possibilities he presented:

It may not work, period. It may be corrupted and crash your machine.

It's likely to be loaded up with spyware or Trojans that will capture your personal information and send it back to the criminal syndicate who sold you the pirated software in the first place. Of course, they probably already have your financial or credit card information anyway if you bought the bogus copy online.

You won't receive updates. Even if the pirates managed to copy the code so it manages to do some security functions, it won't update, and your so-called security software will be obsolete in a week, leaving you vulnerable to attack.

Jason M. Allen, manager of the Internet Anti-Piracy arm of the Software & Information Industry Association, in Washington, told me that if software piracy is growing, it's likely a function of the issue becoming more visible to users. The real problem, he said, is when you have Web sites or online auctions where people try to get software cheap and often don't realize that what they're purchasing may be counterfeit or otherwise illegal software.

"It's very easy to create a Web site that might look legitimate," he said.

For the SIIA's members—which includes Symantec—the real problem is eBay, Allen said. That's not surprising; the huge volume of transactions on the site make policing individual auctions difficult. It's the same problem that's plagued name brand or copyrighted industries that produce high-end products, such as handbags.

eBay's feedback function will not help unmask a pirate, given how easy it is for the pirate to use the same feedback to mask bad PR by writing responses such as "I offered the buyer their money back" or "There was some misunderstanding."

The SIIA has an Auction Litigation Program through which member companies can report suspected piracy. The SIIA investigates the cases, searching on eBay for potential infringements, and then the group makes test copies of the software to ensure that it's illegal. If it is, the group files suit against the seller behind the sale. So far, the SIIA has filed six suits and has settled three.

Education is another goal of the anti-piracy crusaders. It may seem like a no-brainer to the computer literate, but many people still need to learn that just because you see something on eBay or on a convincing Web site and the price seems right, you still need to be careful. Even on a legitimate site, a popup ad can't necessarily be trusted.

Not surprisingly, it isn't businesses that are getting taken in by pirates. Rather, it's individuals looking to purchase software you'd use to secure PCs in your home, Paden said.

The extent of naïve software buyers is broad enough to ensure that Symantec's Brand Protection Task Force hears from piracy victims every day. The task force includes private investigators, attorneys and other specialists who literally do nothing but follow up on complaints from victims who assume their software is from Symantec and thus Symantec should fix it so they can register their copies or get updates or whatever else they have to complain about.

Symantec didn't sell it, so Symantec isn't going to compensate for it. They do request the pirated copies for evidence, though, and make purchases on their own at the sites where the victims say they bought the illegitimate copies.

How do you know whether you've purchased a legitimate copy? Paden had these tips:

Buy from a known vendor. That means BestBuy or Officemax or some other large, well-known retailer. If you're online and you see a popup ad or get an e-mail offering a piece of software that retails for $60 or $90, being sold for $20, exercise some common sense. There are no rebates like that on legitimate software.

If you're buying something online, look for two security keys that can't be replicated. One key is that the URL will have an S, like this: HTTPS. That S stands for secure. Second, somewhere on the page will be a padlock. That also represents that the page is secure. If both aren't there, it doesn't matter what Web site you're at or how competent you are, do not put in your credit card or financial information. It's a dead giveaway that you're either dealing with a criminal or an organization that's so incompetent in protecting your information that you don't want to deal with them in the first place.

Legitimate software from Symantec and other large software vendors will always arrive with a box, directions and an activation code. Except, that is, when you purchase a PC preloaded with software, for example. In such an instance, a PC maker would have an agreement with a software vendor to preload a program. Paden said that nine times out of 10, especially with the eight companies against which Symantec filed suit, consumers receive a CD or DVD in a white sleeve and nothing more. That's a dead giveaway you've gotten ripped off, assuming you get anything at all. "A lot of times people put in financial information and they don't get anything at all, except a big, huge, massive credit card bill a couple days later," Paden said.

A legitimate vendor will give a phone number with a real person on the other end. A legitimate vendor will also have a physical address, not just a PO box.

And just to make sure your semi-computer-illiterate uncle hasn't fallen for a pirate's come-on as far as Symantec security software goes, check any copy of these programs he might have purchased: Norton SystemWorks, Norton AntiVirus, Norton Internet Security, pcAnywhere and Symantec AntiVirus Small Business Edition.

If all he has is a white sleeve and a DVD without a logo, it's time to start the credit watch and pry the credit card out of his grip.