Do Security Software Companies Go Too Far in Scaring Potential Customers?

A new lawsuit accuses Symantec of fake scans that scare people into buying software they don't need.

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Malware is obviously a very real threat to Internet users. The question is, do some software security companies go too far in scaring potential customers into buying their product?

James Gross thinks so. On Jan. 10 he filed a class action lawsuit against Symantec for, among other things, “breach of contract” and “fraudulent inducement.”

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Gross accuses Symantec of, ironically, doing what many of the malware companies it’s supposed to attack do: tricking people into thinking their computers are infected with viruses, all in the name of financial gain. The story should sound familiar to anybody who’s looked for security software online: He clicked on an ad for PC Tools, which promised to scan his computer sans charge for potential security threats.

At the end of the scan, the PC Tools software told him he had “High Priority” errors and that his system health was low. That prompted Gross to pay $29.99 for PC Tools Registry Mechanic.

The problem? According to Gross’ lawsuit, he “engaged computer forensics experts to examine Symantec’s Scareware” and they found that:

The results of this investigation confirm that Symantec’s Scareware always reports that the user’s computer’s “System Health” is “LOW,” that “High Priority” errors exist on the system, and that the user’s “Privacy Health” and “Disk Health” are “LOW.”

and

Plaintiff’s experts revealed that, by any stretch of the imagination, the errors detected as “High Priority” are not credible threats to a computer’s functionality.

Symantec denies it uses deceitful tactics to trick people into buying its products when they don’t need them, saying in a statement to Forbes that it “does not believe the lawsuit has merit and [it] will vigorously defend the case,” and that “several independent third parties have tested and reviewed these products very favorably, verifying the effectiveness of their functionality.”

Obviously the court will decide whether or not Symantec was deceitful with its free scan. If it was, it’s a serious blemish on the company’s reputation, especially when you consider a lot of the programs it’s meant to root out offer similar looking “free scans” (that in fact put malware on your computer).

Even if Gross is wrong, the case shines a light on some of the scaremongering tactics that security software companies use. Take the PC Tools free scan. It employs a graphic that looks more like a chintzy “Applause-O-Meter” you might find at a football game, than a serious indicator of your computer’s health and security level.

If it is legit, why not point out specific deficiencies privacy-related deficiencies, instead of having a dial point to the words “LOW,” written in panicked red, as if oxygen were jetting from a spaceship in an action movie.

Security software is necessary. Hyperbolic warnings, scary graphics and dubious-sounding business practices, however, will in the long-term only serve to scare and confuse consumers instead of inform them.

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