Microsoft aims legal guns at malvertising

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The battle between the software industry and malware purveyors was just ratcheted up a notch. Microsoft (MSFT) filed five civil lawsuits on Thursday, which the software giant says it hopes will deter malware scams in the future. Sometimes called "malvertising," it's a method used by scammers to convince consumers to buy unneeded software or to install malicious software through Internet advertising.

Malvertising has disrupted many companies, with the New York Times' website getting hit by the fake ads on Saturday. The newspaper was forced to suspend all its third-party Web advertising while it cleared up the problem.

Microsoft filed the lawsuits against anonymous individuals who operate under the names "Soft Solutions," "Direct Ad," "qiweroqw.com," "ITmeter INC." and "ote2008.info," according to a blog posting written by Microsoft's associate general counsel Tim Cranton. While the company doesn't know the identities of the real scammers, it hopes the legal process will uncover such information.

And while Microsoft is concerned about harm done to its customers who may have bought unwanted software or allowed a nasty software program to run amok on their PCs, it's also going after the malvertisers for trademark infringement. If you've ever been a victim of a malvertisement, you'll understand why. The ads often mimic the appearance of a Windows alert, such as this screen shot of the New York Times' malvertisement from Saturday.

According to Microsoft's lawsuit against "Soft Solutions," the defendant's website allegedly "has been designed to resemble the look and feel of Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system." Such tactics, Microsoft claims, has induced at least hundreds of consumers to buy and install the malvertiser's software.

The lawsuits, which were filed in King County Superior Court in Seattle, also outline how some of the defendants allegedly misrepresented themselves to gain access to Microsoft's customers.

In the lawsuit against "Direct Ad Solutions," Microsoft alleges the company represented itself as an ad firm working for a travel agency called Global Travel International, which sought to place an online ad on Microsoft's MSN websites. After the ads were placed on the MSN network, Microsoft realized the ads redirected consumers to malvertisements, the lawsuit alleges.

Microsoft has posted some advice on how to be alert to such scams. Just as the New York Times (NYT) advised its readers, Microsoft wants you to remember never to click on a pop-up screen claiming your computer is infected. If you do, you might just become one of the hundreds or more hurt by such scams.

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