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Consumer Alert: Pirates Menace the Software Seas

Pirates aren't just raking in the dough from hardware sales--illegitimate software provides a large chunk of income as well. Global spending on counterfeit, packaged PC software in 2004 was about $31 billion, according to a May 2005 global software piracy study conducted by research firm IDC and the Business Software Alliance. IDC estimates that in 2004, 35 percent of the software installed on PCs worldwide was pirated. Microsoft estimates that more than 192,000 copies of pirated Microsoft software, valued at $134 million, have been seized in the United States alone in the past 12 months.

PC Problems

Such bogus products can leave users with nasty surprises: Besides missing out on updates, tech support, and upgrade discounts, users may run into problems with corrupted data or malfunctioning systems. Pirated software may contain viruses too, says Samantha Kandah, group manager for antipiracy at Adobe Systems. And buying such products may subject users to financial fraud: Kurt Kolb, Microsoft vice president of system builder and license compliance, notes that credit cards used to buy pirated Microsoft goods have in some cases been reused for online theft.

Bogus Bargains

Most U.S. consumers receive a plethora of counterfeit software offers daily via e-mail spam. The vast majority of consumers shy away from spam offers, says John Wolfe, investigations manager for the Business Software Alliance, but many buy dubious items from online auctions and never realize they're getting fakes. Worse, online storefronts hawking pirated software now look so professional that it's tough for buyers to tell real from fake, he says. Nearly 40 percent of software sold online may be counterfeits or illegally made copies, according to the BSA.

For Adobe products, a discount of more than 20 percent off the manufacturer's standard retail price (not counting Adobe rebates) is a likely sign of fraud, according to the company's Kandah.

You may even find illegitimate software at a retail store, says Wolfe. "The big counterfeit operations want to get it into the legitimate distribution channels," he observes. Unfortunately, consumers usually won't know a product is fake until they open the box--and perhaps not even then. If you see a paper label on the software CD, you can be fairly sure it's bogus: Today's original discs have the writing imprinted on them, Wolfe explains. Otherwise, it may be difficult to tell.

Be suspicious of any software marketed as a "backup copy" or as a compilation disc of multiple programs. After buying, make sure to seek mention of proof of authenticity, such as licensing and warranty documentation. (Download more safe-shopping tips.)

Laurianne McLaughlin

Tom Spring is a senior reporter for PC World. Laurianne McLaughlin is a freelance writer based in the Boston area.
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