The Washington Attorney Generals Office is accusing a Scottsdale, Ariz., man of coercing consumers to buy software to block computer pop-ups by first bombarding them with ads for pornography and Viagra.
In a civil lawsuit filed today in King County Superior Court in Seattle, the state alleges that consumers who downloaded the software were further victimized when the program caused their computers to stealthily blast messages to other PCs at a rate of one every two seconds.
Attorney General Rob McKenna said Ron Cook, owner of Messenger Solutions, LLC, violated Washingtons Computer Spyware Act and Consumer Protection Act while marketing programs under the names Messenger Blocker, WinAntiVirus Pro 2007, System Doctor and WinAntiSpyware.
Our suit alleges that it wasnt enough for Ron Cooke to manipulate consumers into buying his software, McKenna said. His program maliciously turns victims computers into spamming machines.
The suit alleges that computers capable of receiving Windows Messenger Service pop-ups, also known as Net Send messages, were vulnerable to the attacks. Windows Messenger Service, not to be confused with the instant-messaging program Windows Live Messenger, is primarily designed for use on a network and allows administrators to send notices to users. It comes preinstalled with some versions of Windows. Service Pack 2 disables the feature in computers running Windows XP. Windows Vista users are not susceptible.
The suit accuses Cooke and Messenger Solutions of 10 specific violations of state law including transmitting malicious software, attempting to coerce consumers into purchasing software, misrepresenting the necessity of software for security purposes and deceptively causing consumers to violate the Computer Spyware Act.
The Attorney Generals Consumer Protection High-Tech Unit has brought a total of six lawsuits under Washingtons Computer Spyware Statute, RCW 19.270, since the law was approved by the Legislature in 2005.
Assistant Attorney General Katherine Tassi, who is overseeing the case, said the High-Tech Unit has seen a trend in deceptive advertising to sell software.
Weve seen individuals and companies inundate consumers with Internet pop-up ads and Net Send services that frequently resemble system alerts, Tassi said. Their intent is to pressure consumers to buy a product that will supposedly protect a computer from pop-ups, viruses or spyware. Many consumers wind up paying for a program that is essentially worthless or may even leave the computer more vulnerable to malware.
The office began investigating the case in October 2007 after a computer in the High-Tech Units lab received ads via Windows Messenger Service. The lab uses honey pots to detect hackers, spyware purveyors and other Internet mischief.
Stream of pop-ups
The states complaint alleges Cooke uses Windows Messenger Service to initially bombard consumers with a continuous stream of pop-ups advertising porn and sexual-enhancement products.
Next, he uses Windows Messenger Service to send those same consumers another bout of pop-ups intended to simulate system warnings. The warnings claim that the consumers computer is vulnerable to security attacks and direct the user to a Web site to buy software to supposedly block pop-ups.
The pop-ups persistently appear anytime the consumer is connected to the Internet, Tassi said. A consumer could simply be typing a letter using a word-processing program and the pop-ups crop up again and again, sometimes covering the entire computer screen.
Consumers who visit the Web site are offered the opportunity to download Messenger Blocker, a program Cooke sells. In some cases, consumers are offered a free seven-day trial. On other sites, the product is available for $19.95 without the trial.
The Attorney Generals complaint alleges that the pop-ups stop during the trial period. But once the trial expires, the consumers computer is bombarded with additional pop-ups that resemble those sent by Messenger Service but, in fact, are generated by Cookes software.
The complaint further alleges that the software installed during the trial or purchase causes a consumers computer to secretly send out more ads to other computers, disables Windows Task Manager and adds a bookmark to the defendants Web site. The software is difficult, if not impossible, to uninstall.
The Attorney Generals Office believes Cooke transmitted the messages and marketed his software from his home and that potentially hundreds of consumers in Washington state received the deceptive pop-up ads. Officials werent sure today how many people outside the state received the ads or how many consumers actually downloaded software in response to an ad.
The states complaint requests injunctive provisions to stop the deceptive behavior, civil penalties and refunds for consumers.