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By | Dan Goodin 26th March 2008 00:56

Spyware 'scammer' sued over PC pop-up invasion

Washington state cracks down

The alleged supplier of some of the net's most hated malware titles has been sued by Washington state's attorney general.

Ron Cooke, the owner of Scottsdale, Arizona-based Messenger Solutions, stands accused of violating Washington's Computer Spyware Act and Consumer Protection Act for marketing programs that went under names including WinAntiVirus Pro 2007, System Doctor, WinAntiSpyware and Messenger Blocker.

According to a complaint filed Tuesday in Washington state court, the company caused some people surfing the net to receive a torrent of pop-ups that advertised porn links and other sketchy sites. The messages were sent through Windows Messenger Service, a feature in Windows that allows network administrators to send notices to users. (The service has been turned off by default since Microsoft pushed out Service Pack 2 for Windows XP, but evidently plenty of people still have it turned on for one reason or another.)

With end users' nerves rattled by the mysterious pop-ups, the company would then send out a new batch of notifications that were designed to look like official Windows alerts. They warned that the computer was vulnerable to malware attacks and directed the end user to reduce the threat by installing one of the software titles.

Messages were suspended during a free, seven-day trial, but when that pexpired, the computer was subjected to additional pop-ups, which were caused by Cooke's software, according to the complaint. Installing either the trial software or a paid version that cost $19.95 also caused the machine to send fraudulent messages to other PCs that would try to con end users into buying the scamware.

The programs are extremely difficult to remove. After installation, there is no entry in the Add/Remove section of Windows, and the software will disable a user's task manager to prevent users from manually shutting down the associated processes.

With tactics like the ones alleged here, it's not hard to understand why there are so many search results returned for the various titles (128,000 for WinAntiSpyware and 74,500 for "WinAntiVirus Pro 2007"). Many of the links point to forums where frustrated users ask for help removing the pesky programs. It remains unclear if Cooke and Messenger Solutions were the sole alleged suppliers of software bearing these titles or if they acted more like franchisees.

Attempts to contact Cooke and Messenger Solutions for comment weren't successful.

The suit seeks a court order to stop the practice, unspecified civil penalties and refunds for consumers who bought the software. It is the sixth complaint to be brought under Washington's Computer Spyware Statute, which was passed in 2005. ®

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