Software Pirates Launch Malware Armada

How to spot and avoid dangerous pirate software: Internet Scambusters #574

Sometimes, people who don’t care about foolishly breaking the law buy pirated software — illegal copies or totally fake products.

But other times, innocent computer users may be duped into buying these fakes without realizing it.

Either way, users of pirated programs now face an extra dose of punishment, in addition to what the law may mete out, in the form of nasty malware, as we explain in this week’s issue.

Let’s get started…

Software Pirates Launch Malware Armada

A new wave of pirate software laden with malware is sweeping the globe, leaving thousands of compromised PCs in its wake.

The situation is so serious, the FBI and the National Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) Coordination Center recently issued an alert to consumers warning of the new danger.

As we reported in an earlier issue, Fakes: Software and Donation Boxes, software piracy is a major issue that costs the program makers a fortune. Buying it and using it is, in most cases, illegal.

But the latest batch of fakes can also wreck your computer with viruses and spyware.

“Illegally copied software, including counterfeit products made to look authentic, could contain malware,” said the FBI.

“Our collective experience has shown this to be true, both through the complaints we’ve received and through our investigations.

“It’s also been validated by industry studies, which show that an increasing amount of software installed on computers around the world — including in the United States — is pirated and that this software often contains malware.”

The software comes from a range of sources — advertised downloads, peer-to-peer networking sites commonly known as “torrent” sites (some of them openly promoting themselves as pirates), street vendors and stores in countries where copyright laws are lax, auction sites, email offers and websites.

Sometimes, it even comes preinstalled on PCs bought new from overseas sellers.

So, who is behind this latest onslaught? Criminals, hackers and even organized crime, says the FBI.

And the risks?

“For starters, the inferior and infected software may not work properly. Your operating system may slow down and fail to receive critical security updates,” the Bureau warns.

“But the greater danger comes from potential exposure to criminal activity — like identity theft and financial fraud — after malware takes hold of your system.”

And once it does that, it can spread to other users’ machines by attaching itself to emails or simply hijacking your email address book.

How to Spot a Fake

It’s not always easy to tell if the software you bought is a fake, although low prices are usually the strongest clue.

Other things you can look out for include:

* Poor quality or non-existent packaging. You buy some software but it arrives unboxed, usually just a disc in a plain envelope.

* The disc itself may be badly produced, sometimes even with just a printed paper label.

* The software may not be the same as advertised or described on the label.

Often labels or advertisements may promote the product as a “full retail version,” when in fact it’s a copy of a cut-down, limited version of the sort often produced as a genuine introduction to the program by a legitimate software company.

* The recorded side of the disc shows shading differences.

This indicates it has been copied. Genuine discs are uniform across the full recording surface.

* If you download it, it comes from a site with a weird address, not the manufacturer’s site.

Be careful with this though because some software producers do use other companies to distribute their digital versions, the most common being Digital River — but you should still be able to check them out before parting with any money.

* Poorly produced user manuals, often with misprints or upside-down pages.

* Problems with activating the program after you’ve bought it — or perhaps having to go to a different site to activate (a trick that sometimes loads additional malware onto your PC).

* Signs of malware on your PC, notably a severe slowing down in performance or data corruption.

How to Avoid the Pirates

You can’t always be sure of beating the software pirates but you should realize by now that buying software you know or suspect to be a fake is a huge risk — both to you and your computer.

Looking for the clues we’ve outlined above should help, but here are 10 more things you can do to cut the risk of being scammed and compromised by pirates:

1. Buy your computer from a reputable manufacturer.

2. If it’s a maker you don’t know, check them out carefully online.

3. Ask your computer vendor to only pre-install authentic software and to supply copies of program discs.

4. Buy your software from an authorized retailer. Other sellers may be legitimate but you’re taking a greater risk.

5. If you plan to buy in an online auction, check the sellers out carefully. Do they seem to have lots of copies of just one or two programs but nothing else? Are items in a sealed, retail package?

6. Wherever you buy your software from, does the packaging match what is shown on the software producer’s website or in retail stores?

7. If you have the choice between downloading or buying a disk, buy the disk. You can check its authenticity before loading it on your computer.

8. If you do download, have Internet security software installed that integrates with your web browser. This will check if the file is safe.

9. Don’t download software from torrent sites. Pirates purposely post links to infected versions.

10. Check the average retail price of the software from reputable vendors. If what you’re buying costs considerably less, it’s probably a fake or compromised in some other way.

The bottom line is still that you might not be able to avoid being scammed by a software pirate but at least if you check the program at the outset, you can probably identify if it’s genuine and, if not, take the hit on your finances but don’t load it onto your PC.

Don’t be tempted to walk the plank for fake software. Prepare to repel pirates!

Time to conclude for today — have a great week!