(Wired News) Windows computer users are fuming over a new breed of pop-up ads with a dubious sales pitch: Buy our software, and protect yourself from pop-ups like this one!
The gray pop-ups, known as Messenger spams, are sent using special software that taps into a Windows feature designed to enable administrators to send messages to users on a network. Not to be confused with the MSN Messenger chat program, the Messenger service is enabled by default on Windows 2000, NT and XP systems, and can be exploited to blast out tens of thousands of pop-up ads per hour.
Advertisers use the technique, also known by spammers as “IP marketing,” to hawk everything from weight-loss products to porn. But the most common product touted in recent Messenger service spams, users say, is pop-up blocking software.
“To me this is a form of blackmail. I’m surely not going to pay these people to quit sending me unwanted messages,” wrote a user named Jim in a Microsoft security newsgroup.
“Damned if I’ll buy preventative from the perpetrators,” chimed another participant.
Many of the ads coax recipients to visit messengerkiller.com, saveyourprivacy.com or nearly a dozen other sites operated by San Diego-based D Squared Solutions. The sites sell Message Blocker pop-up blocking software for $30.
“This sales method is strikingly similar to the ‘protection’ rackets offered to small businesses by organized criminals,” wrote one participant about D Squared’s pop-ups in a discussion group for Windows XP.
Scott McGowan, D Squared’s president, insists that customers “find our product to be extremely useful.” The company has sold around 1,000 copies of Message Blocker, with most of the sales generated from pop-ups broadcast by sales affiliates, he said.
McGowan said his company is responsive to users’ criticisms about its ads, and in some cases has provided users with a free copy of the software when they complain to the company. However, he acknowledged that the firm’s Web page allowing users to opt out of receiving future broadcasts is not working.
D Squared’s marketing technique is nothing new — many spammers today are attempting to sell spam-filtering software. But what makes D Squared’s actions particularly egregious, according to some critics, is that it was originally a purveyor of software used to send Messenger spams.
The firm’s Broadcast Marketer sold for $150 and was capable of sending 135,000 pop-up ads an hour, according to a cached version of the product’s website, which is no longer available.
Last year, D Squared’s then-president Anish Dhingra reportedly said the company did not consider Broadcast Marketer’s pop-ups spam because affected users can configure Windows to reject the ads.
Indeed, contrary to the claims in ads from companies such as D Squared, Internet users needn’t purchase special software to protect against Messenger spams. Instead, some experts simply instruct Windows users to fend off the pop-ups by shutting down the Messenger service if it’s not needed on their network. Several sites offer free tools to perform this task.
Microsoft has published a bulletin advising users to obtain and properly configure firewall software to block external Messenger pop-ups. The company recommends disabling the Messenger service as a last resort, since antivirus, power-supply and print-spooler programs sometimes use it to alert users.
To date, many consumers have apparently not protected themselves from the new spamming technique and are confused by the pop-ups.
“Is this another gimmick to get Window users to buy another Microsoft software product to prevent these pop-ups?” asked one frustrated Internet user in an online discussion group earlier this month.
McGowan blamed the recent flurry of Messenger service ads on former D Squared marketing affiliates who have formed their own company, Scintillant. The pop-ups tout Scintillant sites including destroyads.com, byebyeads.com and endads.com “in a manner we do not personally condone,” he said.
McGowan said D Squared stopped selling the Broadcast Marketer program last March “because we felt a moral obligation to follow.” He said Dhingra is no longer with the company.
Advertisers like Messenger spamming because they do not need to compile mailing lists to reach recipients. In addition, the source of the pop-ups is difficult to track. Packages such as Broadcast Marketer allow spammers to target a range of Internet protocol addresses with their messages.
However, only computers running recent versions of Microsoft Windows can receive Messenger spams. What’s more, the ads do not contain clickable hyperlinks. As a result, many pop-ups instruct users to write down a Web address before closing the window.