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The Dangers of Downloading Free Software

[important]This article was written by Bill Pytlovany and has been reposted here with his kind permission. Bill is the developer of the well known WinPatrol security program, he is among the original cyber-security researchers and one of the founding fathers of the Internet as we know it today.[/important]

Intro by Jim:

If you are a regular DCT reader you’ll already be well aware of my concerns regarding download sites and the traps they often present for unsuspecting users. The predilection for most download sites these days is to favor revenue over user safety/security, and it seems almost all download sites have decided to employ one sneaky method or another to help generate further income. CNET’s download .com is a prime example of a download site more concerned with furthering its own ends than the welfare of users.

Developers are now beginning to voice their disgruntlement with the trend and are adding their voices to the protest. What follows is a recent article published by legendary WinPatrol developer Bill Pytlovany on his Bits from Bill blog:

Bill’s Article:

Occasionally I hear from folks who report problems that sound really bizarre. It often sounds as if they’re talking about an entirely different program. It turns out sometimes they are!

I always make the newest WinPatrol available on WinPatrol.com but it’s not unusual for people to find WinPatrol on one of the free software websites or find it when doing a search. Searching on Bing, Google or Yahoo can be very dangerous, especially if you click on one of the links they allow to advertise.

The major problem with free download sites is they try hard to trick you into downloading other software. Most of the time, the other software pays the site based on how often it’s downloaded and usually includes toolbars, advertising or uses scare tactics to make you to pay for a premium version.

Let me show you examples that appear on the first search page when looking for WinPatrol:

Both of the big buttons that say “Download” have no connection to WinPatrol.  The blue one will download a modified version of a Zip program which includes so much crap they apologize ahead of time:

The green download button downloads an install manager that will attach to all future downloads. You’ll notice how they acknowledge users will want to remove the ”not required… additional software”. My guess is they must get a lot of complaints about this additional software:

Even some of best known and respected download sites have changed their policies in return for ad revenue. Now that CBS is in control I’m sure my friends at CNet are told if they want to keep their job they’ll generate profit:

CNet has been very supportive of WinPatrol even though I can’t afford to compete with advertisers who use more aggressive upgrade methods or include additional advertising toolbars.

The top download button on the WinPatrol review page will download a program called Aro 2012. I’m not familiar with this program but couldn’t help noticing the first user review wasn’t very positive but is a common theme:

The other “Start Download” button on the WinPatrol review page pointed to an ad sponsored Registry Cleaner program yesterday but I noticed today it also points to CNet favorite, Aro 2012.

I tried my best to find a download site, any download site which didn’t participate in methods obviously meant to trick users.  I eventually gave up. I don’t know if the economy is that bad, people are just that greedy or if everyone thinks the Internet is a gold rush and they think these methods are acceptable.

Here’s my page on the once reputable FileHippo.com:

If you read the page you’ll see that FileHippo has been a friend to WinPatrol even providing links to older versions.  Unfortunately, they still insist on including a large Download button that downloads a questionable audio converter program:

Doing a simple search of “Babylon Toolbar” and you’ll see one of the reasons I’ve never agreed to include a toolbar with my program. The entire first page on Google consists of advice on how to remove the toolbar which apparently isn’t something possible with the Add/remove applet.

I probably haven’t done myself any favors with this post since WinPatrol depends on good reviews. Like it or not, these sites are still popular.  I’ve had a number of acquaintances tell me this is just normal Internet business practice and I should be making money too. I may not have a lot of Internet gold but I still have loyal WinPatrol fans. Even if they don’t use WinPatrol they know I’ll continue to help when I can and will tell it like it is.

Update: October 22nd, 2012
I was surprised to hear my friends at Malwarebytes shared my frustration and beat me by posting about their own experience.
For additional examples and dangers see.
http://blog.malwarebytes.org/intelligence/2012/10/pick-a-download-any-download

<source>

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Postscript from Jim:

Great article Bill, good on you and good on Malwarebytes too. With influential guys like you publicly registering your protests hopefully more will follow and, who knows, maybe even change the way these download sites think and operate.

**DCT recommends the FreewareBB download site. FreewareBB is one site which places user welfare above all… over financial gains and self interest. The site’s owner/administrator, Mark (Marko) Wiliamson, has dedicated 6 years hard work to providing the ultimate safe and secure freeware download source. Unfortunately, user habits are hard to break and maintaining FreewareBB is a struggle at times, yet Marko has always stuck true to his original vision and stellar principles. Anyone seeking a freeware download site which is 100% committed to honesty and integrity need look no further than FreewareBB.

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About the author - Jim Hillier
Managing Editor/Contest Coordinator of Daves Computer Tips - Jim is the resident freeware aficionado at DCT. A computer veteran with 30 years of experience. His first computer was a TRS-80 in the 1980s. He progressed through the Commodore series of computers before moving to PC's in the 1990s. Jim currently uses both Win7 and Win8. Jim has a passion for free software and hopes to share that passion with others during his tenure here!
 
Comments

I have more friends that I can handle … they call me and ask me to help them exactly with the issue at hand. For some of them… Its impossible to help stupid …

Great article. Though, I feel that most who read it will already be very aware of what these sites have done. At one time I would recommend the above mentioned sites to friends and family for good freeware, but no longer. If I am going to help, I personally download the right software and give it to them on a stick. I do not want my good name associated with a lot of computer pain. As it is, I get called upon to get too much of this crap off computers. I hope the article gets picked up and spread to a wider audience.

am i missing something? why not download a program from the program’s legit site? if u want to install winpatrol for example just go to winpatrol.com. if i’m wrong will someone please correct me. THANKS

Or we could just use one of the many ad blocking tools and not have to worry?

Hey Guys – You are making the mistake of perceiving yourselves as the standard and believing that everyone thinks and acts as you do… it is not so. See Tom Linton’s comment above.

@Connor – What you are missing is that YOU are [obviously] pretty savvy, there are plenty of folk out there who are not. My clientele for example consists primarily of older people (same vintage as myself), the vast majority of whom would not even be aware of the existence of ad-blocking tools. These are the folk who are most at risk.

@chet – Firstly, many users habitually download from a particular, or favorite, download site. Just because you don’t yourself doesn’t mean it’s not a common practice. Secondly, I could supply a long list of downloads which are not available from the developer’s own site. I visit dozens of product pages every month and I can assure you that many do not provide download links themselves, they link to external download sites. Even some of the top developers do this, particularly through CNET download,com. It actually annoys me when I come across a good freeware which is only available to download “exclusively” through CNET. I do not like CNET and don’t want to download from them, but there is often no choice.

Cheers… Jim

Excellent article and sound concerns Jim. It’s a pity many don’t understand the message you’re presenting.

CNET for years now is know as the site which bundles adware – tracking – programs which help the corporations (not YOU), and thus if you need a program, it’s safer to see if someone else can supply you the program you desire.

CNET constantly tries to FORCE an opinion from you. I respond by NOT downloading from them (even if no one else can supply the program). From my past experience, it’s better to be safer, than cry later, Mindblower!

Hey MB – I’m with you 100% mate!! If I can only get a software from CNET download.com, I will give it a miss and look for an alternative.

Sad thing is that CNET continues to thrive despite it’s complete lack of regard for users… go figure!

Cheers… Jim

You can download from CNet -and these others if you pay attention and watch what you are doing. While I am disappointed with CNet, I still value their reviews, and especially those of the people commenting on software there. But I will first try to download from the software author’s website, if possible.

Hi LeeD – To each his own but I do not put too much store in software reviews presented by CNET. Seems to me that favorable reviews are often published in exchange for something, such as ‘exclusivity’… as in, you give us sole download rights and we’ll publish a favorable review. Or as a result of pressure exerted by one of CNET’s many affiliations.

As for the user comments, well they can be hopelessly misleading. I have read user reviews on CNET which declare that known good freeware, such as CCleaner for example, contain malware. I’m afraid user comments are often of little value.

If you want to access unbiased software reviews, my advice would be to perform a search and look for reviews emanating from reputable sites which do not also host the download… such as DCT :)

Cheers… Jim

Agreed on CNET..Once the “go to” site,it’s now the “run from” site for me.
I’ve been using Major Geeks as the suffix in my web searches,and that’s been working out OK most of the time.
The way things are going, torrents will be safer. (just kidd’n)

Hi chuck – I agree, Major Geeks is one of the better download sites.

Major Geeks appears to be more in tune than most with user welfare, mostly filtering out ‘bad’ or suspect downloads. CNET, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to give a hoot. Each day I search through the major download sites, looking for any new and interesting freeware. CNET is by far the worst for listing downloads which come bundled with those awful toolbars, or advertising modules, etc. CNET also seems to have no problem listing software from sites which rate poorly through WOT and MSA.

Of course, FreewareBB is THE best freeware download site, but then you already knew that. :)

Cheers… Jim

.

G’day,
Isn’t CNet one if Murdoch’s enterprises? ‘Nuff said.

Hi Jim,

A great article.
As a techie, and a long-time ‘helper’ for seniors in computing I have to agree that people can be their own worst enemies in the use of computers.
Time after time I have given’ (as in no cost) my time in order for clients to understand, comprehend, and repeat instructions, written, put in a folder for them to read, BEFORE downloading or clicking ‘go’ before placing their own personal/private information on the internet, and to READ before they leap. The ‘WHAT IF’ factor does not seem to register. My clients are aware that I am one phone call away for their safety zone, but, they have kids who know all the answers and I am an old fart from the old school who ‘isnt with it in THIS hi-tech age’!

Not surprising why toaster manufacturers put a ‘pop-up when cooked’ trigger in their products.

I support FreewareBB 100%, the team of dedicated individuals who go way beyond the call of duty to protect those who don’t have a clue when their toast is burnt.

Kind Regards,

JoninOz.

When I looked at this article it reminded me that I have already read it some where when I checked at the top you have clearly mentioned this article is written By “Bill”.

This article is great informative and helpful. It is my habit I put cursor on a link and check if that is real or not. This habit save a lot of frustration.
As I am very old user of Filehippo.com after reading this article I was shocked though I was aware of CNET.
I wish reader of this article should share it with others and spread the word.

To me, instead of blaming someone, awareness is the greatest tool such as reading articles by Jim or others.

Big Thanks to Jim for sharing this with us.

Hi….
I’m one of those who is not a computer nerd or geek or whatever they call them selves. I learned the hard way about CNET and I thought it was a reputable site to download from…not anymore.

I also have teens who download stuff and I explain to them to be very careful and to even do a search on reviews before downloading and to watch when downloading because i notice many want to change your designated search to a different search bar.

I like the tips and thank you very much for taking the time to info those like me

Went to FreewareBB download site and searched for Winpatrol. The page has a big download button for a download manager, and a smaller download sign for the Winpatrol program. Which seems to be the exact problem you are talking about.

Hi Larry – Valid point. But these ads are randomly placed by AdSense, site admin has no control over where they appear. AdSense is the sole source of revenue for a smallish site such as FreewareBB. I know Marko has considered dropping ads altogether as they go against his principles. Trouble is, Marko is just an ordinary bloke who cannot afford to cover running costs completely out of his own pocket. I can assure you, if FreewareBB ever neared the size of sites such as CNET and others, ads would be gone completely and forever!!

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