Feeling Deactivated? Inauthentic? Less Than Genuine?
By Steven Salemi
The Computer Guru
Servicing dozens (sometimes hundreds) of computers every month, as I do, I tend to get a pretty good overview of what’s going on “out there” in the real world of personal computing. The City of Santa Fe, in which I conduct my business, has about 75,000 people, but it’s safe to say that (our moniker “The City Different” notwithstanding), whatever people are going through here, computer-wise, is more or less what people are going through nationwide, if not worldwide.
Computer problems tend to come in waves, or cycles. This isn’t too hard to understand when a new virus “hits,” often in the form of a deceptive e-mail message or attachment that’s making the rounds. People open them and are immediately infected, or perhaps directed to a malicious website that does the dirty deed, transferring to their machine some nasty trojan or browser hijack or other piece of malware that takes many tedious hours to remove correctly and completely.
The bad news is, most antivirus and antispyware programs, even the best of them such as Norton, McAfee, and AVG, don’t seem to prevent these unhappy scenarios from occurring.
It’s a bit more mysterious when a rash of machines come in with dead hard drives, power supplies, video monitors, or some other specific failed hardware component – why should this be? Maybe it’s solar flares or electromagnetic radiation, or power surges on our city’s outdated “Wild West” power lines, or substandard house wiring in all those quaint old adobes, or lightning and thunderstorms, or a collective failure on the part of the citizenry to propitiate the computer gods…
…whatever, it’s unusual, and inexplicable. But it happens. Trust me, it happens.
Got PC Troubles? At Least Stay Au Courant…
The latest unwanted computing phenomenon I’ve observed is a rash of messages on people’s machines claiming their software is “not genuine” or “counterfeit,” and requiring reactivation and/or directing them to websites offering to sell them copies of “genuine” Microsoft Windows.
I’ve seen these messages too often for comfort, lately, so I’ve spent some time researching the problem, in my lab, and on the internet. Turns out it’s a huge problem experienced by countless people, many of whom are using legitimate, licensed, legal, paid-for Microsoft Software.
The problem seems to stem from Microsoft’s collective corporate paranoia about stolen and/or illegal copies of their software floating about (I don’t suppose Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer or Jim Allchin or any of that crowd can sleep a wink at night if they think that even one person, anywhere in the world, is using a single copy of a Microsoft operating system or application that hasn’t been paid for).
To ensure that the big boys get a good night’s sleep, Microsoft has introduced a variety of methods to authenticate and validate its software — a mixture of confusing and annoying tools and technologies. The problem is, these tools don’t always give accurate results. Even Microsoft admits it, ‘though you won’t hear them shouting about it.
In some instances, which I’ve reproduced myself in my lab, different Microsoft software validation techniques can produce conflicting and contradictory reports: one Microsoft tool says the software is genuine, while another Microsoft tool says the software is counterfeit. Well, Microsoft, which is it? Can’t be both! Even a cursory web search shows the problem to be shockingly widespread: innocent users of totally legitimate software are being accused by imperfect, robotic Microsoft software validation technologies of acquiring and using counterfeit software!
Apparently, Microsoft follows Napoleonic legal practice: when it comes to software piracy, you are guilty until proven innocent, and Microsoft ultimately serves as the judge, jury – and your court-appointed counsel!
Here’s what Adam Dachis, a U.K.-based technology writer, has to say on this subject (call it a knotty problem, or sticky wicket, if you wish). His voice echoes that of thousands of ordinary users and computing professionals, all stating essentially the same thing:
“The authorisation process Windows imposes on its users is pretty picky, sometimes causing problems with legitimate copies. What do you do when you follow the rules and Windows authorisation still fails you?
“I’ve seen a handful of readers make fun of me for running a non-genuine copy of Windows 7, but I actually did purchase it. My serial number will not work because it is an upgrade-only number. Even though I did upgrade, Windows 7 seems to think I didn’t and so I cannot authorise it. I’ve tried over the phone, but I’ve just ended up waiting on hold endlessly for an actual person when the automated system failed as well.
“That’s one circumstance. Other problems include Windows refusing to activate after a hardware change, receiving “Invalid Data” errors for unknown reasons, and Windows forgetting that it’s activated every time you reboot. So how do you deal with activation troubles?”
Or the well-known website ehow.com:
“If you are confident that your copy of Windows was legitimately purchased but you are still receiving counterfeit notifications, the operating system may have a corrupted file that is preventing the Windows Genuine Advantage program from operating correctly.
“Sometimes a genuine serial number will not activate the system. If you go through the activation process but you still see the counterfeit message, contact Microsoft Customer support for more assistance.”
Or Ken Fisher of the well-respected ars technica website:
“Windows Genuine Advantage is a controversy wrapped in an enigma buried inside a migraine headache. Or at least that’s what it is for the millions of users who have been falsely identified as software pirates as a result of WGA’s attempt to root out piracy.”
Is It Real, Or Is it Memorex?
Let’s deal with the (relatively) simple and easy part of this complex problem first: the existence of genuinely counterfeit software, and how to avoid it. That’s right. Some software is truly, fully, madly, and deeply bogus. Fake. Phony. Ingenuine. As worthless as a three-dollar bill.
Maybe it’s made in China, maybe it’s made in India, maybe it’s made in Peoria. But, yes, such software really exists, and (like counterfeit money) there are bad fakes, good fakes, and even great fakes. Microsoft has a few web pages on how to discern phony software from the real stuff based on appearance, but what good is that? The boxes are sealed, and you’re not allowed to open them, and half the time, you’re buying them on the internet anyhow!
So I’ll take a different approach, a preventive approach. Call it the “channel” approach, viz., only buy software through trusted channels. Would you buy prescription pills from some guy in a trench coat standing in a back alley?
If you want to avoid the risk of acquiring (and wasting hard-earned dollars on) phony software, follow these simple rules:
1) Don’t buy software from another person – an individual – ever.
2) Don’t buy software from E-Bay – ever. New, used, unopened, factory-sealed, “guaranteed,” it doesn’t matter. When buying software, avoid E-Bay like the plague. It remains a mystery to me why Microsoft doesn’t exercise its legal and financial muscle to forbid E-Bay from accepting all auctions of Microsoft product (especially “used” software, which is a bad joke). Much of this software is counterfeit, and much of it is illegal to use (it’s already been installed on the maximum permitted number of machines, and the licenses aren’t transferable anyway), so why do Microsoft’s Anti-Piracy Police allow this to go on? Remember, you never “own” Microsoft software, ever; you are merely permitted to use it, under license, from Gates and his minions.
3) Don’t buy software from Amazon Marketplace Sellers – ever. These are just people, not the Amazon company itself. It’s no different than E-Bay, really.
4) Don’t buy software from mysterious websites offering incredibly low prices – ever. These websites will sell you counterfeit software, take your money…and disappear from the internet in a few days, popping up later with a different name on a different site.
5) Don’t buy software “Product Keys” alone, ever; buy legitimate disks (or legitimate downloads with legitimate keys) from trusted sources only.
6) Don’t “download” software for free using peer-to-peer networks such as Limewire, Bearshare, Bit Torrent, uTorrent, etc. If you know the software costs money, and you’re getting it for free, then there’s no doubt about it – you’re getting counterfeit, illegitimate, stolen software, and even if it seems to work okay at first, it will come back to bite you.
7) DO buy software through legitimate channels, including the major office supply and technology stores, the manufacturers themselves, as well as from experienced Microsoft system builders and partners (such as The Computer Guru) – but (for operating systems, anyhow) don’t install it yourself, have an expert do it!
If you’ve bought the software yourself and installed it yourself, and you have reason to believe it’s not legitimate, return the software for a full refund. If you’ve bought the software from (and had it installed by) a computer professional, and you’re having activation or validation problems (including the “counterfeit software” message), demonstrate the problem to the professional and ask them politely to rectify the problem. They’ll know just how to do it, they won’t argue with you or charge you a dime (unless a different and costlier version of the original software you bought is required for some reason), and they’ll apologize for the hassle (even though it’s probably not their fault).
False Positives – When Good Software Is (Allegedly) Bad
When you’re using legitimate software and you still experience error messages regarding activation or validation, there’s a problem somewhere. But where? Bring the computer to a professional and have them solve the problem for you, unless you enjoy wasting countless hours of your time nursing a splitting headache, watching screen after screen of fruitless “repair” activities occur via remote control, and attempting to understand a new language in the bargain.
Of course, in some few cases, a simple five-minute telephone call to Microsoft’s cybernetic activation operators will suffice to “reactivate” software that the software giant has, in its infinite wisdom, deemed worthy of “de-activation.” You can always try this first. But imagine if you had to return your car to your dealer every six months to prove you hadn’t stolen it from them!
Inexplicably, however, Microsoft programs that “pass” activation – and which remain activated – can nevertheless be flagged as counterfeit, and the error messages will continue until they are resolved, one way or the other. Nobody seems to know why this can or should occur; after all, when Microsoft “activates” your software, they are tacitly verifying that the product key matches up with the software, and that both are authentic, and that you are legal and valid and ready to go. But the much-hated and obviously-flawed “WGA” (Windows Genuine Advantage) technology may still proclaim your “activated” copy of Windows 7 (for example) to be counterfeit!
Maybe it really stands for “Witless, Gargantuan Arrogance!” Wait till some savvy virus writer devises a browser hijack that directs you to a phony website which mimicks the windows validation site ( www.microsoft.com/genuine/validate ), claims your software is counterfeit, and asks for money to correct the problem (possibly, this has already been done). The poor users won’t even know if their software is real, fake, a real fake, or a fake fake!
The mind reels…
In many cases, after exhausting every known solution, Microsoft will say that the only possible fix (besides selling you a brand new copy of Windows, which they are always happy to do) is the very same fix that is frequently offered by another major American computing company, Hewlett-Packard, when their support technicians encounter an intractable printer problem. They will tell you that your computer software environment is too fouled up to be rescued, that the problem can not be fixed, and that you must perform a “clean” reinstallation of Windows.
That is, you must completely erase your existing hard drive and reinstall your operating system (along with all required programs and updates, not to mention your data, favorites, photos, music, videos, and drivers for peripherals such as printers, scanners, and cameras) before the problem will disappear.
This can be a time-consuming and troublesome task, and it usually requires an expert to do it. But the good news is that, providing the job is done right, your computer will be as good or better than when it was new, your data will be safe, and you will no longer be accused of criminal behavior. Your formerly “counterfeit” software will pass all of Microsoft’s various testing technologies, and you will be stripped of your honorary software piracy skull and crossbones.
You see? Even computer horror stories can have a happy ending.