By ALLISON LINN, AP Business Writer
SEATTLE - The people who call Dell Inc.'s customer service
line often have no idea why their computers are running so slow. The
ones who call America Online Inc. can't necessarily explain why Internet
connections keep dropping. And those who file error reports with
Microsoft Corp. don't always know why their computers inexplicably
Sometimes, the company that gets the complaint is rightly to
blame. But with alarming frequency, officials at these and other
technology companies say they are tracing customer problems back to one
In the past year, spyware problems have become especially pernicious,
leaving companies scrambling to respond to customers who don't
necessarily realize they have spyware.
Companies are concerned about the cost of dealing with such calls. But
perhaps more worrisome, they fear customers will wrongly blame them.
Spyware generally refers to programs that land on computers without
their owners' knowledge. They can deliver hordes of pop-up ads,
redirect people to unfamiliar search engines or, in rare cases, steal
Users most often get them by downloading free games or file-sharing
software -- and consenting to language buried deep within a licensing
And because they consented, "in some ways it ties our hands because we
can't legally interfere," said Mike George, head of Dell's U.S.
Russ Cooper, senior scientist with TruSecure Corp., said a
longstanding fear of legal repercussions is likely one reason
companies have only recently begun to address the problem.
But now that spyware has become epidemic, he believes Microsoft and
other companies ought to do much more to educate the public -- such as
by running public-awareness commercials akin to the old Smokey Bear
slogan "Only you can prevent forest fires."
The industry's incentive is simple survival, Cooper said.
"It's almost ridiculous," said Bill Bane, 33, a derivatives trader in
New York. "You buy a computer. It's new, bright and shiny and looks
great and three months down the road, it's infested with spyware."
Though he recognizes he's partly to blame for his surfing habits, he
believes his service provider and manufacturer share responsibility.
"Either the Internet providers figure out a way to clean up the Net or
people are just going to pull the plug at home," Bane said. "It ain't
Microsoft officials blame unwanted software for up to one-third of
application crashes on Windows XP computers. AOL estimates that just
three such programs together cause some 300,000 Internet
disconnections per day.
Forrester Research analyst Jonathan Penn said a
spyware-related support call can cost $15 to $45, and companies may lose
"Security is a component of loyalty," Penn said. "People, they want
all these various services, but they expect security to come with it."
Some companies have begun offering spyware-detection tools -- Yahoo
Inc. (Nasdaq:YHOO - news)'s is free, while AOL and EarthLink Inc.
limit key features to paid subscribers. Anti-spyware software that
Hewlett-Packard Co. began shipping with new computers in June comes
with a 30-day free trial; it's about $20 a year after that. Dell will
have similar software by the holidays.
Most tools leave it to users to decide what to do with any programs
EarthLink's tool -- and AOL's by default -- will quarantine spyware
without removing it completely. EarthLink spokesman Jerry Grasso said
some users may decide that having spyware is worth the nuisance in
exchange for the free program that came with it.
Microsoft's Service Pack 2 security upgrade for Windows XP warns users
of spyware and other unexpected programs before they are loaded. And
the company plans spyware-specific tools to give users more control,
said Paul Bryan, a director in the security, business and technology
unit. He said it was too soon to say when they would be available.
Advertisers are responding, too. After using the criticized delivery
methods for nearly two years, Verizon Communications Inc. suspended
those campaigns in July.
"We realize it was being raised as a consumer issue," spokesman John
Bonomo said. "We wanted to make sure we were keeping with the trust
they place in us."
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