Computer users have been warned that inexpensive software for sale online could, in fact, be pirated – and buying these products is not only illegal but opens users up to malware attacks.

Microsoft South Africa’s anti-piracy manager Monique Ferreira says there are thousands of websites claiming to sell genuine Microsoft software products. “Recently, we were tipped off by many angry consumers who were under the impression they bought genuine Microsoft products online, only to realise it was never the real thing.”

Ferreira confirms that results from a recent study by Symantec revealed 65% of participants have fallen victim to some kind of online crime. This includes virus or malware attacks, online scams, phishing, social network profile hacking, credit card fraud and sexual predation.

“This has spread globally” she says. “Online or internet piracy poses serious problems to often unsuspecting consumers and small businesses, leaving them wide open to malware and virus attacks, identity theft and loss of money.

“However, purchasing software from the comfort of your own office or lounge chair need not be cause for worry and headaches if consumers and business owners know how to spot a fake,” Ferreira assures. “Although a recent Keystone study found online criminal activity to be on the rise in developing countries, this is not a new phenomenon. People in these countries, including South Africa, are just starting to use more and more technology.”

In an effort to understand how much consumers actually know about counterfeit vs. genuine software, results from Microsoft’s consumer perception survey showed a clear understanding of the personal risks involved in purchasing counterfeit software, online or from a physical store. They also understand the problems that counterfeit software can cause.

Consumers need software companies to produce tough-to-counterfeit software and government to increase the effort to reduce counterfeit software.

These studies clearly indicate the negative effect of piracy on any customer (individuals as well as small businesses) when buying and installing anything else but genuine Microsoft products. Job losses and cuts in profit are direct effects online theft and unfair competition from dishonest traders in emerging economies.

Ferreira says she can think of at least five benefits why consumers should insist on buying the real thing:

* You get the most value for your money;

* You get technical support you can count on;

* You get long-term value by putting your confidence in proven technology;

* You get free anti-virus and anti-malware protection; and

* You enjoy greater capabilities and easy integration with the widest variety of hardware, software and services.

“The only way to make sure you don’t get trapped by sites that at first glance seem like the real thing, is to educate yourself as to what to look out for when buying online,” says Ferreira.

* Do not buy if you can’t be assured by the seller (online or in-store) that it will pass the Windows activation test. If it doesn’t pass the test, contact the seller immediately for a refund.

* Do not buy from untrustworthy sources. Spelling mistakes and incorrect Microsoft logos are a tell-tale sign.

* Do not buy if the price seems too good to be true, because it probably will be.

* Do not shop too far from home. Other countries may have different legal systems and other factors that may complicate the transaction if things go wrong.

* Do not buy backup software copies or bundles of several programmes.