January 25, 2006 12:41 PM PST

Washington state sues over spyware

If you paid $49.95 for Spyware Cleaner from Secure Computer, you have been duped, according to Microsoft and Washington state's attorney general.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software maker and Attorney General Rob McKenna have filed a pair of lawsuits against Secure Computer and its principals, charging them with violating the Washington Computer Spyware Act and three other laws. The suits were filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.

"Our suit accuses New York-based Secure Computer and certain individuals in New York, New Hampshire, Oregon and the nation of India of preying on consumer fears about spyware," McKenna said Wednesday during a news conference announcing the action.

The Washington Computer Spyware Act, effective since mid-2005, provides for a fine of up to $100,000 per violation, McKenna said. The action is the first lawsuit filed by the state's attorney general under the new law.

An attorney for Secure Computer said his client was "shocked and surprised" by the allegations. "We are evaluating the situation and hope to address the merits of these allegations...shortly," John W. Dozier of Dozier Internet Law said in a statement sent via e-mail.

Secure Computer allegedly used deceptive links on search engine Google's Web site, as well as in pop-up advertising and in spam e-mail for Spyware Cleaner to imply that the software came from or was endorsed by Microsoft, McKenna said. Additionally, the company is accused of using a Windows feature to pop up warnings on users' PCs, telling them their system had been compromised, he said.

The messages urged the users to run a spyware scan. "The program...falsely claims that a computer is infected with spyware," McKenna said. The PC users were subsequently advised to buy Spyware Cleaner for $49.95 to remove the malicious software, he said--but the product did not do what it promised.

"Not only does the program fail to clean a computer of spyware; it actually will change a computer's settings that leave it susceptible to future attacks from other spyware and related programs," McKenna said.

Microsoft said it helped the attorney general by providing technical information and analysis. The software maker also filed its own, similar lawsuit against Secure Computer and individuals associated with that company.

Ben Edelman, a Harvard Law School student and spyware researcher, applauded the action against Secure Computer. The company seeks "to play on users' fears, and...to take advantage of users who are just trying to protect themselves," he said. "I'm pleased to see Microsoft and the state of Washington moving to stop these deplorable practices."

Spyware and adware have become widely despised for their sneaky distribution tactics, unauthorized data gathering and tying-up of computer processing power. The terms are used to describe software that pops up ads on a PC screen or that can log keystrokes, make screenshots and track a user's Web-surfing habits.

As many of 60 percent to 80 percent of consumers' PCs are infected with the annoying software, said Kirk Bailey, chief information security officer at the University of Washington, who joined Microsoft and the attorney general at the news conference.

"The bad news is that that those who continue to engineer and build those kind of tools are getting better at it," he said. "Advances in spyware are winning the arms race. The ability to inspect and remove spyware after you have been infected is a serious challenge."

To minimize exposure to spyware and other online threats, consumers should use a firewall, run regular software updates, and use an up-to-date antivirus program and anti-spyware software, Microsoft has advised.

10 comments

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Question?
Question, why was th attorney general so slow, to enforce this legislation when it was first enacted in law! What a slacker!!!!!!

Perhaps, he was spurred on by the SONY audio cd's illegal trojanware debacle?
Posted by heystoopid (691 comments )
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Evidence
Easy, evidence. If you want to win a case, you need evidence...and getting evidence and other useful information takes time.
Posted by csturdivant (68 comments )
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Another misleading headline
Once again CNET posts another completely misleading headline, This article is about Washington state suing a spyware cleaner, which doesn't clean spyware, and has dubious marketing methods. This article has NOTHING to do with a spyware maker.

I hope no one gets paid to come up with these headlines.
Posted by (27 comments )
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Not quite so...
The implication here is that the software's status is dubious at best. While it doesn't eliminate spyware from systems as it claims, it also modifies settings to allow future attacks. Whether that qualifies it as spyware or not is up for debate, but there is certainly more to the story than the software simply not doing the thing it is marketed to do.
Posted by someguy389 (102 comments )
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Headline query
Thanks for your comment. We're taking your concern into account and tweaking the headline.
Posted by KarenSaid (17 comments )
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Why are you so jumpy?
only people that are guilty of some wrong doing press the issue(s) like you have.

Hmm???
Posted by Julie Allen (43 comments )
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Should sue their own first--MSFT root cause
If MSFT didn't allow these "ads" to take over your machine (let alone allow the spyware to get on their in the first place) then this "company" wouldn't have done what it did.

Break up microsoft now!
Posted by Anon-Y-mous (124 comments )
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I disagree, partially...
If Microsoft's software was 100% bulletproof, as you are implying it should be, then yes, the Company accused of this wrongdoing would NOT have been able to do what they did in 'this case'. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that the Company just wouldn't have found some other means to dupe a lot of people out of their money.

Of course, you could ALSO look at this issue from another point of view. People should thank Microsoft for not having 100% bulletproof software, because think of ALL of the people that are currently employed by Virus Scanning Companies, Spyware/Adware Cleaning Companies, Software Security Companies, etc. Who knows what manner of potentially illegal activities they might have been getting into otherwise! (NOTE: This last comment is COMPLETELY sarcastic so don't bother getting all bent out of shape about it)
Posted by TMB333 (115 comments )
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I disagree, completely
Listen - I don't take everything Microsoft shoves out there as gospel. Any responsible computer user should be constantly weighing their options and use the software that provides them with the least threat. This often means using tools other than what MS packages with their OS at your own discression.

That said - breaking up microsoft has absolutely nothing to do with this story. Microsoft puts a browser out there for people to use by default. Use something else if you feel vulnerable by what they provide. I award you no points, and may god have mercy on your soul.
Posted by neofight (1 comment )
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