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Wednesday, 01 October 2008 14:38

Microsoft gives scareware scammers the Washington willies

Security software that markets itself by running into a room, shouting fire and then offering to sell you a dodgy fire extinguisher is known as scareware. Microsoft is taking advantage of an anti-spyware law in Washington to give them a taste of their own medicine.

Back in 2005, Washington adopted the Computer Spyware Act which explicitly prohibits spyware activity. Unlike other US States, the Washington anti-spyware legislation uses a broad definition of spyware which includes those who "mislead users into believing software is necessary for security."

Recently this law was updated in order to provide for additional liability covering third-parties which allow the transmission of spyware as well as addressing deceptive marketing such as the misrepresentation of a need for computer repair.

Microsoft, along with the Washington Attorney General, has seized upon this opportunity to target the purveyors of so-called scareware.

In fact, Microsoft is determined to give the scareware-mongers the willies for a change.

Washington Attorney General McKenna says that together they have "yanked the fear factor dial out of the hands of businesses that use scareware as a marketing tool and have spun it toward them."

McKenna goes on to insist that "we won’t tolerate the use of alarmist warnings or deceptive 'free scans' to trick consumers into buying software to fix a problem that doesn’t even exist."

A lawsuit was filed in King County Superior Court against the marketers of a program called Registry Cleaner XP, bringing five causes of action against James Reed McCreary IV and two businesses he is either a director or CEO of.

According to the complaint, which you can see in full as a PDF here, the defendants sent 'incessant pop-up' messages to consumer PCs.

These pop-ups were made to resemble system warnings, and so went for the fear factor jugular.

What does Microsoft have to say about the case, and will it make any real-world difference? More on page 2...


The pop-up marketing, disguised as system messages, included such warnings as "CRITICAL ERROR MESSAGE! – REGISTRY DAMAGED AND CORRUPTED" along with instructions to visit a website where they could download the solution to the non-existent problem.

That solution being, of course, Registry Cleaner XP. The campaign exploited something known as the Windows Messenger Service (not to be confused with Instant Messaging) which enables system admins to send network messages to users.

As the head of the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection High-Tech Unit, Paula Selis, says "Consumers who visited the Web site were offered a free scan to check their computer – but the program found 'critical' errors every time. Users were then told to pay USD $39.95 to repair these dubious problems."

With 50 percent of customer support calls being related to spyware in some way, according to Microsoft, you can understand why it is taking this seriously.

Richard Boscovich, Senior Attorney for Microsoft's Internet Safety Enforcement Team insists that Microsoft is "helping to protect consumers from online threats" and maintains that "we can work to champion tougher laws, greater public awareness and, ultimately, stronger protections for online consumers."

Which all sounds great, and be in no doubt that I am all for using state legislature like this to attack those who prey upon the vulnerable computer user. However, there is one small problem as I see it.

These new filings bring the total number of civil spyware actions brought by Microsoft in Washington alone, under the Computer Spyware Act, to 17.

Indeed, back in 2006 Microsoft and the Attorney General each brought lawsuits against the same group of defendants. This resulted in what the Attorney General's office refers to as "permanent injunctions and settlements."

Which makes you wonder if they were permanent and the matter settled just why the same defendants are back before the beak on the same charges in the same state just two years later...

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