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Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Dangers of Downloading Free Software

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. Click images below for real size view.

softpedia1
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 timesoftpedia3

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.
softpedia2


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.
cnet1
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.
cnet2The 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
filehippo1
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.
filehippo2
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

Update 2: October 24th, 2012
Thanks to Gizmo’s Freeware and Vic Laurie for pointing me to yet another great article that documents more examples of this unacceptable practice.
http://www.ghacks.net/2012/06/17/how-deceiving-ads-trick-you-on-download-sites/

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17 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very good post!!
The reference to MalwareBytes also well worth a read.
Keep up the good work!
HeberH

6:47 AM  
Anonymous Paul said...

Since I first became aware of this it has expanded to many more sites.
I totally agree that the practice is deplorable and wherever possible avoid the sites that use it.

One way unwanted downloads can sometimes be avoided is with the FF extension Interclue.
When I hold the cursor over a download link Interclue opens a small window showing the details of the download, if it shows anything other than what I am expecting I do not click on the link.
This does not work every time but enough to make it worth using, it also shows the file size which can be another indication if something is not right.

Whatever their reasons for following this practice, financial or otherwise, the offending sites seem to be impervious to criticism.

7:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One add-on that is very effective is AdBlock Plus. Firefox and Chrome are both compatible with this add-on. A good test to see how effective it is is to view the same websites posted here before and after installing AdBlock Plus. Download links are missing when AdBlock is enabled. Seeing is believing.

You cannot be infected by what you cannot see.

4:07 AM  
Anonymous Geoff Realname said...

I visited the CNet and Softpedia WinPatrol sites using both Fx and IE and saw no ads. I assume that this must be because I'm using the MVPS Hosts file; if so, a good reason for doing so! http://winhelp2002.mvps.org/hosts.htm

8:44 AM  
Blogger Sam said...

I used download.com and some similar site regularly, but halted some years ago as the large "download" ads started to multiply. Glad you brought this up. It looks like filehippo is starting to drown as well, then. I've been using that to redirect me to the official page of any program, and download from there. Search Google for a download link or official page? I stopped doing that many years ago too. All too dangerous!

4:08 PM  
Blogger Eike Heinze said...

Bill,

Frankly, I have a little problem with the way you present this VERY REAL and important and annoying issue.

I feel we should tell our readers HOW TO AVOID these ads and NOT TO USE these web sites.

IMHO only FOUR simple steps alleviate most if not all of the problem:
#1: DO NOT USE Internet Explorer; use Firefox or Chrome instead.
#2: Use Adblock Plus(a browser add-on) with two block lists: Easylist and Fanboy's).
#3: Use WOT (another add-on).
#4: Use Common sense, a tricky one; it requires to think before clicking.

10:56 AM  
Anonymous Peter McDonell said...

I checked Winpatrol on FileHippo a few minutes ago. There was no other download button on the Winpatrol page other than their update checker at the top of the page. I have been using FileHippo (and Winpatrol) for years without any misdirection problems.
Petermac, Tascott, Australia

1:10 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

@Peter McDonell
You're using Internet Explorer?
Anyway, you might be right, as what you will see on the page is individual and personalised by whoever is responsible for the "placeholders" as they are called, in this case Google. And if you're registered on Blogger, or using Gmail or any other service from Google, you're guaranteed to have customised ads as they keep a log of your browsing history anytime you use Google to search for anything (who doesn't?). There are two more rules that apply: what country and region you'r located, and what kind of software or product the page you're browsing offer, or writes about. You will probably see some ads about either "computers" or something "security"-oriented, like a antivirus or similar, am I right?

7:26 AM  
Anonymous Poppy Payne said...

Bill;

Well said! This practice is becoming more and more prevalent. It beguiles visitors who thought they could trust such sites as C-Net into downloading all sorts of things. I used to routinely tell people 'go to C-Net" but I no longer do so. I now take the time to locate a "clean" link to a product and send that to the person who needs it.

Unfortunately, I do not think these sites will stop until they experience a mass drop off of visitor traffic.

Poppy

6:01 PM  
Blogger Dreamer said...

I have use Firefox and visit Cnet and File Hippo regularly. The dangers pointed out in this article are very real if like so many people I help, you have no idea what is lurking.

3:14 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I use CCleaner and some other utility software. I have found that I need to look real close on these download sites to find the software I am looking for. Even then, you have to be careful when installing them. Usually you have to make sure you aren't downloading toolbars like Googlem by just unchecking them.

6:46 PM  
Anonymous groverpm said...

The only button on the CNET download page for Winpatrol is for WinPatrol but then I use NoScript and Adblock in Firefox. When I allow scripts to run then a load of other download buttons appear. The moral: use NoScript

3:39 AM  
Anonymous Brian said...

Bill,

As usual with most of your articles here, this one is quite insightful and even though I know what I am doing, I have clicked on a couple of these by mistake.

Others that have mentioned using AdBlock Plus in FF or Chrome is a good step.

I would also additionally recommend using Spyware Blaster and Spybot Search and Destroy's immunization feature. Both of these applications will help folks block additional stuff that ad block plus misses.

12:00 AM  
Anonymous Laser Patent said...

Your blog is amazing. it offers relevant information and knowledge to its readers. Keep posting!

4:24 AM  
Blogger Ray Hosking said...

Great post Bill.

I have also found lately that when updating software I have paid for, I have the same problem.
Its not difficult to end up with a lot of rubbish trying to find the right link.

Anyway thanks for post, MalwareBytes is a great read also.

RayH

10:52 PM  
Anonymous Nancy K said...

Bill,
You may not become a millionaire with your practice of not adding "foistware" & other add-ons to your download, but you will ALWAYS be known for your INTEGRITY!!!

4:49 PM  
Blogger Saba Naaz said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:09 AM  

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