‘Security’ That Makes A Grab For Your Wallet

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Here’s a little story about an inattentive customer and the price of inattention. I play the sucker. The company that takes me for a ride is a surprise casting choice: McAfee, a reputable security vendor. McAfee’s anti-virus software is an industry standard, even if reviewers have been saying since last year that Microsoft’s free alternative, Windows Security Essentials, is as good or better for home use. But McAfee does not make a product to guard against McAfee. And it turns out that the company has been charging me annual license fees for software I uninstalled years ago. A good Counterspy should be smarter than this. Read on and you may find your own wallet in the story.

In 2004, I bought three inexpensive Dell laptops for my kids. Dell fills its computers with crapware, collecting fees from McAfee and other vendors to pre-install “trial” versions. I know the game, but I figured I was smart enough to use McAfee’s service free for a year. When the trial ran out, in 2005, I even decided to buy a license for another year. The McAfee web site tried to set me up with automatic annual renewal, but I was careful to uncheck that option. By the end of 2006, when my licenses expired, I had uninstalled the software and replaced the laptops. At about the same time, American Express canceled the card I used on the McAfee site and issued me a new one. As far as I knew, my relationship with McAfee was triply severed.

Here comes the clueless part. McAfee kept charging me annual license fees, and I did not notice. I had marked email from McAfee as spam after a sufficient number of unsolicited sales pitches. Usually I scan my credit card bill for unfamiliar names, but the light bulb did not go off until this month. McAfee? Huh? I checked my old records and, sure enough, McAfee had collected $212 since I stopped using it in 2006.

It took a while to find a phone number on McAfee’s site. (It’s 866-622-3911 for home and home office customers.) The first operator told me that the “end user license agreement” provided for blah blah blah, and she could not authorize a refund. The supervisor gave the same boilerplate but agreed to refund the most recent charge. The supervisor’s supervisor offered to refund last year’s charge as well — $87 in all — but no dice on the rest.

Maybe you’re thinking it served me right. Maybe it did. But let’s be clear: McAfee’s business model relied on me to play the fool, paying for a “service” I did not use and did not know I was buying. Given the volume of PC sales and the way McAfee runs its operation, I imagine there must be thousands of phantom subscribers — folks who signed up once upon a time and left the software behind two or three computers ago. (Have you checked your credit card bill lately?) This kind of prey-on-the-customer behavior is more commonly seen in monopoly markets such as cable TV. Now I have to wonder about other software vendors.

Kendrick Celestine, the senior-most supervisor who would talk to me, said I had freely agreed to McAfee’s terms when I accepted the license agreement. Yeah, OK. It’s not possible to buy commercial software without agreeing to opaque and absurdly one-sided terms — you don’t own the software, the vendor can disable it any time, you have no legal recourse if the product destroys your computer, and so on. I do read licenses, and they aggravate me, but a computer isn’t much good without software. When I need a product, I hold my nose and click “agree.”

McAfee’s terms include an especially tricky provision: “Without prejudice to your payment obligations, you may terminate your license at any time by de-installing the Software.” I doubt it is obvious to everyone what the first half of that sentence says: You can remove the software and “terminate your license,” but that doesn’t mean you stop paying. (To do that, you have to cancel your account, which neither the license nor the McAfee web site explains how to do. ) Hat tip to McAfee’s general counsel.

Celestine said he could find “no record” that I had opted out of auto-renewal, which is open to several interpretations. Naturally, I could not prove otherwise about a mouse-click I made in 2006. So I said, let’s forget for a moment what your lawyers say you can get away with. How do you justify charging your (former) customers an annual fee for software they have uninstalled? “We have no way of knowing you no longer have the software on your computer,” he replied.

Now that simply ain’t true. Celestine seemed a decent sort, and he did not write the script. So I’ll pin that flagrant dishonesty on his company. McAfee’s software “phones home” to company servers every day to update the anti-virus database. In order to enforce its license terms, the software also checks in frequently to make sure the customer is paid up and current. The very same database, therefore, tells McAfee when a previously installed copy of the software has fallen off the grid — in my case, for nearly five years. I remained on the books as a paying customer even though McAfee’s records showed that I had disregarded five major upgrades, from version 8 to version 13, and had never once refreshed the malware definitions that make the product work. (I don’t know this, but I’ll bet a nickel that when I removed the software from my computers, the uninstall script also notified McAfee.) The company had easy, automated means of knowing that it was charging me for a service I did not use. I’ll make another bet: the company’s CFO knows exactly what percentage of its “customers” are paying forgotten license fees.

I still did not understand how McAfee pulled this off. How could it collect its $43.54 a year from a canceled credit card? It turns out that American Express honors recurring payments even if the vendor is unable to supply an accurate card number and expiration date. An Amex phone representative said this is a feature, not a bug, which makes sure my bills are paid. (And that Amex gets its cut of each additional transaction.) As an Amex customer, you can’t turn it off. Your only recourse is to tell Amex to decline future charges from a specific vendor, and remember to renew the instruction every four years. Celestine, the gentleman from McAfee, explained his company can charge an expired card because American Express “knows that we’re not some sort of scam artists or frauds.”

Well, then.

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