Regular readers know that I have become an unwilling connoisseur of junk e-mail. A few weeks ago, I noticed an interesting trend in spam. Amid the promises of hot teenage cuties and the missives from Africa offering riches in return for a small good-faith investment was a stream of superficially legitimate-looking ads for Norton SystemWorks 2002 and other software from Symantec (SYMC).
A quick investigation of these messages and of the Web sites they linked to established that they had no direct connection to Symantec, even when the sender's address on the mail indicated otherwise. Probing deeper, I gained a new perspective on the strange, dark side of e-commerce and uncovered some online traps awaiting the unwary.
There were a lot of similarities among the messages I received. Each one carried a forged sender's address. But a perusal of address information normally hidden by mail programs showed that the advertisements came from a variety of accounts, mostly outside the U.S. Each message offered a software package at a deep discount. A favorite was Norton SystemWorks 2002, a collection of utilities including antivirus and firewall software. At the time, it sold for about $100 but was priced at $29.95.
Each message was linked to a Web site where an assortment of Symantec software was selling at similarly low prices. The sites themselves fell into two general groups: ones such as www.deal2002.com and www.supersave.biz, registered in the U.S. and with registration information giving the names of actual, locatable administrative contacts; and ones that identified themselves only by a numerical address, such as 188.8.131.52. To the limited extent that these sites can be traced, they seem to be mostly in China.
Almost all of the Web sites claim to use secure technology for taking orders. But many, including all the numbers-only Web addresses that I checked, do not use secure protocols to transfer credit-card information. At best, you risk exposing your card number and personal data; at worst, you may be caught in an outright credit-card scam.
How do legitimate products end up getting sold in such dubious ways? "It's not coming from Symantec," says Joy Cartun, the company's director of legal affairs. "We don't have those sorts of campaigns." William Plante, Symantec's director of worldwide security, puts it even more bluntly: "Ninety-nine percent of the time, this stuff is counterfeit." Symantec regularly checks out the product being sold on the Web, and Plante says he knows of only one case where deeply discounted software was not counterfeit.
Alan Moore, who operated deal2002.com (he has since shut down that site), takes strong issue with the claim, saying he is buying software that Symantec originally sold to computer manufacturers for installation on new machines. "Nothing we sell has ever been pirated, bogus, or advertised as anything but what the customer ordered," he says. "All we offered is software that is bought at wholesale prices and retailed." Plante declined to comment specifically on the products sold by deal2002.com, saying only that Symantec was investigating the case.
Given such uncertainties, what is a consumer to do? In general, I would avoid buying from Web sites that market using spam. The few bucks you are going to save are not worth the risk. Although the software you get, assuming you get any, will probably work all right, the chance of credit-card fraud or identity theft is serious. To be safe, don't deal with a Web site whose only address is a number. And don't enter credit-card or other personal information unless your browser shows a locked-padlock icon at the bottom, indicating a secure site.
In the future, we will probably see fewer solicitations of this sort. Microsoft (MSFT) has largely eliminated such sales through its annoying--but effective--policy of requiring each copy of Windows or Office to be activated using a valid serial number. As Symantec and other publishers wage war on piracy, approaches like Microsoft's will likely become the rule. By Stephen H. Wildstrom