Movieland.com is shaping up as the latest skirmish in the battle between adware sites and Web surfers over who has control of your computer. The company denies its critics' charges that it stealthily implants intrusive software on consumers' computers.
Movieland's Web site claims to offer legal downloads of movies, music and other files right to your desktop. But its critics say what it really offers are annoying adware and invasive pop-up windows that can't be removed without manually tampering with your machine's registry, a treacherous undertaking.
The Movieland site offers a three-day "free trial" download for viewers wanting to test the software. According to the company's terms of service, unless you cancel the service during the three-day period, the company will bill you $29.95 a month.
But Web surfers who say they have never visited the Movieland site or downloaded the software report that they found the company's pop-up windows on their machines anyway, often after downloading another free utility or screensaver elsewhere.
"I am receiving pop-up video from movieland.com that tell me I'm 'legally obligated to pay, now that your free trial is up' and I never ordered anything from the Website," said Michael of Wheeling, W.V., in an October 2005 complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com
"This video overrides all other functions on my computer until it is finished and the reminder keeps coming back every day," he said.
The pop-up windows repeatedly admonish the user that they are violating the terms of service agreement with Movieland, and advise that they need to pay money in order to stop the pop-ups from appearing. A link is provided to offer the consumer's credit card information.
Such was the situation facing ConsumerAffairs.com reader B. Armstrong of Modesto, Calif., who downloaded Movieland but denied using it during the trial period.
"[T]hey install ... many 'cookies' during the 'free, no-obligation test period' that prevent you from terminating your service without 'their electronic CS approval'," Armstrong said.
"There is no phone to call, no cities listed, no support per se, just every 10 minutes an irritating popup with a video woman that comes on to tell you that you've breached their contract and that owe them money. Once again...nothing was ever downloaded and I wasn't a customer."
The company disputes Armstrong's version of events.
"It is impossible to receive our payment reminders (an anti-fraud mechanism) without intentionally downloading our software. We are happy to provide you with screen captures of each and every step of the download process," the company said in an email from an unnamed company representative. No screen captures had been provided as of this writing, however.
"There is no adware utility that 'automatically inserts itself.' Our software is downloaded manually by they (sic) consumer through several intentional steps. Each step has a default setting to 'cancel.' Further, there are no extrinsic programs (adware or otherwise) bundled with our software," the company's statement said.
Nevertheless, consumers complain that, once on a user's computer, the software is very difficult to get rid of. The company disputes that. "The Movieland software is not 'very difficult to get rid of' it can be removed through add/delete programs," the company said.
A Not Uncommon Problem
So apparently pervasive is the problem that companies are buying advertisements to offer removal remedies.
"Remove Movieland Now" is the headline on a paid advertisement that sometimes appears atop Google searches on the word "Movieland." The advertisement from PareToLogic.com offers a program called XoftSpy, which claims to remove adware, spyware and pests.
"Annoyed with Nag Popups?" reads another Google ad, this one placed by SoftwareVictoria.com. "Movieland's nagware is on the rise," the company's home page says.
A Yahoo search on the term "Movieland" produces a list of other suggested search terms, beginning with "remove Movieland" and "uninstall Movieland." "Remove Movieland Adware Now" reads a Yahoo advertisement from WhichAdRemover.com.
There are also several do-it-yourself solutions to be found on the Web.
Readers of spyware fighter Mike Healan's SpywareInfo.com forums pieced together some viable solutions for getting rid of Movieland without destroying your computer.
Wyoming Internet service provider Visionary Communications has a detailed series of instructions for getting rid of the Movieland pop-ups.
The do-it-yourself sites and the advertisements for paid removal services lend credence to complainants' claims that the software is difficult to remove, as does the company's own Web site.
According to Movieland's "Customer Service" page, a user who wants to uninstall MediaPipe has to enter his computer's registry to procure the "Customer ID" number.
Manually editing the registry can cause difficulties in the computer's everyday operation, and most experts advise users not to tamper with the registry without specific instructions or experience.
Movieland's Terms of Service state: "Uninstalling the MediaPipe software will not cancel you out of your trial offer." The company insists the payment reminders are legitimate.
"The payment reminders issue ONLY if a consumer exceeds the free trial period and are stopped immediately upon receipt of payment. The payment reminders are an anti-fraud mechanism and in full compliance with state and federal law," the company's anonymous statement said.
Movieland's download service is powered by MediaPipe, a utility that automatically inserts itself onto a user's machine when the user clicks on a Movieland-supported link.
MediaPipe has become so notorious among privacy advocates that companies with similar names have posted disclaimers stating that they aren't related to it.
The MediaPipeLine video production company posted a message saying that "Movieland.com is perpetuating a scam of putting an installer on pornographic and [hacker] sites that [tricks the user] into installing the application on their systems."
SourceForge, a software development company which makes a Mac OS X program called MediaPipe, carries a prominent statement at the top of its homepage, reading: "We are not affiliated with Movieland (and have nothing to do with them!)."
As far as Movieland itself, the site's parent company is advertised as both Digital Enterprises and Integrated Enteprises, reportedly based in southern California. The company's statement did not include any information on the company's headquarters or officers.
When contacted last week by ConsumerAffairs.com for comments on why their programs were causing users so much trouble, Movieland claimed it would only address the matter with customers.
A person who identified herself as Andrea, a customer service representative, said, "You need to be a customer and have a customer ID to get help from customer service."
And of course, in order to get a customer ID, a user has to download the service and agree to the terms and conditions, including the regular monthly charges.
Most experts agree that the best way to avoid problems with adware sites is to not download any free services onto your computer without verifying they're legitimate first.
Most importantly, never give out your credit card information through adware pop-ups, as the odds are better than good that you're being taken for a ride.
As Visionary's John Wiltbank said, "Movieland is spyware. In other words, it's a bad program that you should get rid of."
In its unsigned statement objecting to ConsumerAffairs.com's reports, Movieland concluded:
We require you to retract or remove this article immediately. We remain hopeful that this matter can be resolved without filing suit against you for libel, tortious interference with contract, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage, and violation of California Civil Code Section 17200.