Are Cheap Windows and Office Programs a Scam?

Why those cheap Windows and Office programs don’t last: Internet Scambusters #845

When every cent counts, as it does for most of us, cheap Windows and Microsoft Office software has an undoubted appeal.

But, in addition to the question of whether this software is legal or ethical, buyers also face the risk that it’ll stop working just when they need it most.

In this week’s issue we explain where some of this dubious software comes from and why it’s best to give it a wide berth.

Let’s get started…


Are Cheap Windows and Office Programs a Scam?


Psst… Looking for cheap Windows or Microsoft Office software? How does a few dollars a pop sound?

If that interests you, you’re not alone. Online auction and retail sites are teeming with cut-price versions of the Windows operating system and the Office program, often claiming that this software is legal.

The truth is that, at best, it’s legally-dubious “gray market” software, sometimes from other countries. At worst, it’s downright fraudulent.

One thing you can be pretty sure of is that it doesn’t come with a disk, an unused keycard or a certificate of authenticity (CoA). You’ll be given a download link and a key code that may or may not work. And, if it does work, it might suddenly lock up a few months down the line.

The trouble is that copyright and software licensing laws are a mass of confusion, with myriad ways of getting around the rules.

And Microsoft themselves, together with sites like eBay and Amazon, more often than not seem to turn a blind eye to the sales of these products — unless they suspect it’s a large-scale fraud.

So if you go online and search for a definitive answer on whether cheap Windows and Office are legal, you’ll find plenty of other people doing the same — but no definitive answers.

On the other hand, it’s fairly easy to tell if it’s risky. If the price is way below what Microsoft charges, then something is obviously not quite right.

Here are the more likely explanations:

  • The software comes from another country, such as China, where the retail price is often much lower than in the U.S.
  • The key comes from one of a number of bulk-licenses for developers and manufacturers. You might hear these products referred to as “OEM” software. They’re not supposed to be sold to the general public.
  • It’s educational software, made available for legitimate students and academics. In some cases, you may buy a “pre-registered” version, which means you have to sign on with a Microsoft account specified by the seller.
  • You’re told the software and its key come from a computer that has been scrapped. Advertisers who sell these often claim this product, which includes a license transfer, is legal in certain countries.
  • The key codes have been bought using stolen credit cards. They’ll work at first but once Microsoft catches up with the fact of how they were purchased, they’ll deactivate the programs.
  • You’re simply getting a key code that has already been activated. And it’s hit or miss whether it will work again and for how long.
  • The key code has been provided by a firm to an employee for home use and the employee is selling the code.

As Chris Hoffman, editor in chief of the tech advice site How-to Geek, recently commented: “These keys just aren’t legitimate. By purchasing them, you may be supporting criminals who steal credit card numbers. Or, you may be rewarding people who abuse programs set up to help students and encouraging the shutdown of these programs.

“We all know it: There’s no way a $12 Windows product key was obtained legitimately. It’s just not possible. Even if you luck out and your new key does work forever, purchasing these keys is unethical.”

However, if your budget is tight, there are ways of getting Windows cheaply or even for free.

For example, you can simply install some of these programs and not activate them. Their functionality may be limited and you may get on-screen reminders but you can certainly use them as a temporary stop-gap.

Or you may be able to download a trial version of Office and use it for free for a couple of months.

You can also buy legitimate OEM software for around 25% less than the full retail price, though it won’t be fully supported by Microsoft.

Or, if you already have an earlier copy of a higher version of Windows — 7 or 8 Pro for example — you can usually use the key from this to upgrade your copy of Windows 10 to the same level.

In fact, you may find that that old Windows 7 or 8 disk will allow you to install a fresh version of Windows 10 from scratch.

Alternatively, if being bang up to date isn’t important to you, you can buy a new, sealed Microsoft 7 disc online for around $40 — and pursue your upgrade from there.

And, of course, if you really are a student or academic, you will likely qualify for discounts on any Microsoft products you buy.

Don’t forget too that, when it comes to Microsoft Office, there are several programs that are either free or cheap that are fully compatible with Office, being able both to open and save files in the native Microsoft formats.

For us, the bottom line is that it’s not wise to buy very cheap Windows or Office software — for the reasons Chris Hoffman gives and, for the likelihood that, at some unspecified point in the future, your cut-price version will simply stop working.

Alert of the Week

How good do you think you’d be at spotting a phishing attempt to steal your personal info?

Google has posted a simple online quiz to help you find out.

That’s it for today — we hope you enjoy your week!