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Too good to be true?

Cheap software - it's often not the bargain it appears

You see great offers on software on internet auction sites, through websites, even in your email. How do they sell software so cheaply? It's usually simple: the software's not genuine.

'Exclusively low prices - cheap software,' the website promises, 'advantageous shopping! Maximum price is $50 for an item in our store!' It is offering packages that usually ship for �300 or more. 'Save up to 90% on software! PC and Mac!' promises the latest junk email, and indeed, the prices are that good.

We've all seen the rock-bottom prices, and the question is, when you see software advertised online, how do you know it is what it claims to be? The prices will often tell you what you need to know: as John Lovelock, the director general of the Federation Against Software Theft says, "If it is too good to be true, it probably isn't true."

When you are faced with the product in real life, it's often easy to spot a fake. You might get a CD-ROM that has been copied to order on a home PC, with the product name written on in marker pen. Even if the product is more professionally produced, a fake is usually easy to spot if you compare it to one you know to be genuine. For example, Microsoft puts more anti-counterfeiting technology into its certificate of authenticity than the Royal Mint puts into its banknotes, and a cheaply-manufactured fake certificate on your CD case is usually obvious by comparison.

Spot the ringer

You can't see the product itself on the internet. The most obvious way of ensuring that your software is authentic is to either buy it direct from the software company itself, or from an authorised reseller. Otherwise, go to reputable companies that you trust and have a reputation to protect.

There are some telltale signs that the offer isn't all it might be: vague descriptions of the software, packages supplied from websites based overseas, bundles of software offered on one disc from several suppliers, and the telltale word that signifies the software has been hacked and illegally distributed: it is described as 'Warez'.

"If you see that a website is offering software 'for installation with new PCs only', then watch out," Lovelock warns. This is what is known as OEM software, he explains, sold only to companies who build PCs, not to consumers or businesses. It's legal for the retailer to sell it, but if you buy it, your licence will not be valid.

Remember: if you buy software that isn't legal and then have to make it compliant, you will have to pay the manufacturer for the licence - not the fly-by-night company that sold it to you.

What am I bid?

One place where fake software has often been sold at knock-down prices is the internet auction. It can be hard to distinguish between the real and fake when an auction has five minutes to run and you are hoping for a bargain. Use the same principles - think about who is selling, whether it's local, and if the licence is appropriate - before being tempted.

Check that the auction site actively polices the sellers who post auctions. No site can ever do this perfectly, but - for example - eBay has since 1997 run a programme called VeRO (Verified Rights Owner) which searches automatically for the telltales of a fake product in the description, so that you don't have to.

"The bottom line for us is that members who think eBay is just a bunch of fakes won't come back. We're pretty watertight these days," says Garreth Griffith, head of trust and safety at eBay UK.

When it finds a suspect product for auction, eBay refers the listing to the company that created the product - 10,000 of them are VeRO members - who can decide to take down the auction. That means you're much less likely to find a fake online, and if you have suspicions, eBay wants you to report them. "The happiest days in my job are when someone emails me from the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit and says, thank you," Griffith says, "We want a floodlit internet highway with no dark alleys."

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What next?

The concept of software licensing can be very confusing. Our introduction to licensing explains it in plain English.

Our game's so much fun that it even makes software licensing interesting! Evade the viruses and navigate the maze to win. Play it now.

Microsoft has introduced Windows Genuine Advantage, a way you can check your copies of Windows XP are genuine. Find out more.

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