MacKeeper celebrates a difficult birthday

Its new owners are pushing ahead while its previous one is close to a $2 million class-action settlement

MacKeeper at 5

MacKeeper celebrated its fifth birthday in April, but the security and performance application has been dogged by accusations it exaggerates threats to complete a sale.

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MacKeeper, a utility and security program for Apple computers, celebrated its fifth birthday in April. But its gift to U.S. consumers who bought the application may be a slice of a $2 million class-action settlement.

Released in 2010, MacKeeper has been dogged by accusations that it exaggerates security threats in order to convince customers to buy. Its aggressive marketing has splashed MacKeeper pop-up ads all over the web.

The program was originally created by a company called ZeoBIT in Kiev, Ukraine. The country -- full of young, smart programmers -- has long been a hub for lower-cost software development and outsourcing.

The class-action suit, filed in May 2014 on behalf of Pennsylvania resident Holly Yencha, contends that MacKeeper falsely flagged security and performance problems in order to coax consumers into paying $39.95 for the full version. The suit sought $5 million in damages.

It is close to being settled, according to recent documents filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

Under the settlement terms, ZeoBIT would put $2 million into a fund for those who want a refund, but admit no fault, which is customary in such settlements. It has yet to be approved by a judge.

MacKeeper was wildly lucrative for ZeoBIT. As many as 650,000 consumers bought it in the U.S., according to documents filed in the suit. At $39.95 per copy, ZeoBIT would have made $26 million in revenue in the U.S. alone.

In April 2013, ZeoBIT, which now lists its headquarters as Sunnyvale, California, sold MacKeeper to a company called Kromtech Alliance Corp. Kromtech was closely affiliated with ZeoBIT in Ukraine, and many employees of ZeoBIT transferred to the company, which lists its headquarters as Cologne, Germany.

An effort has been under way by Kromtech to rehabilitate the image of MacKeeper to keep the franchise going. But concerns remain over how MacKeeper diagnoses a computer's health.

AV Comparatives, an Austrian company that evaluates antivirus programs, recently tested the latest trial version of MacKeeper at the request of IDG News Service. It was installed on a fresh, fully patched version of OS X Yosemite, Apple's latest operating system. In theory, the system should have had no problems.

MacKeeper warned in red in several places with exclamation points that the computer's condition was "serious" due to more than 500 MB of "junk" files.

After fixing 85 files for free, it warned more than 1,500 need cleaning -- but only if the full version of the program was purchased. Those that supposedly need cleaning up included language files.

Jeremiah Fowler, MacKeeper's U.S.-based spokesman, said that Kromtech has toned down its warnings, but defended the program's evaluations.

"Sure, it may not be this massive amount of data, but these are things that you'll never use," Fowler said. "You'll probably never activate Chinese."

Fowler pointed out that there is a pop-up window with more information on one of the warning screens. That message justified the warnings and said MacKeeper found "a relatively large amount of unneeded files" that could eventually affect a computer's performance or security.

MacKeeper has also taken heat for aggressive and pervasive advertising. Fowler said the company buys upwards of 60 million ad impressions a month, making it one of the largest buyers of web traffic aimed at Mac users. MacKeeper has even posted a statement on its website to answer why people see its ads so often.

It has also had issues with some affiliate advertisers, who were attracted by the 50 percent commissions Kromtech pays for sales of MacKeeper.

Some affiliates have wrapped MacKeeper ads into advertising software programs, or adware. It's a category of much-loathed tools that offer some functionality such as search but are primarily designed to deliver ads.

Thomas Reed, who writes The Safe Mac blog, discovered the reach of MacKeeper affiliates. Reed developed a program called AdwareMedic, which removes adware from Macs. The program is free.

Reed wrote in November that he found an adware program called Downlite that, if installed on a Mac, would redirect someone to MacKeeper's website site if they tried to download AdwareMedic.

Kromtech has taken steps to reign in unethical affiliates, Fowler said. More than 80 percent of ZeoBIT's affiliate agreements have since been suspended, and the company's new compliance department closely vets new ones.

Still, the bad practices of former affiliates caused damage to MacKeeper's reputation, Fowler said.

These days, MacKeeper has gone to a subscription-based pricing model rather than a $39.95 one-off payment. It costs $7.95 a month in the U.S. for the premium, year-long plan. Its latest feature is offering phone support from Apple-certified technicians, which it calls Human Inside.

On its website, MacKeeper assigns a value to each of its tools, contending the bundle would be worth $510 if bought individually.

"Save up to 97 percent," it says.

But many of the tools in the software bundle, which includes an antivirus scanner and 15 other utilities, are already in OS X or available for free.

For example, MacKeeper licenses technology in its AV scanner from Germany-based Avira, which offers its Mac security product for free. On its pricing page, MacKeeper estimates the value of an AV scanner at $79.

Curiously, MacKeeper doesn't offer updates or what's called real-time protection -- where files that are downloaded or opened are scanned for malware -- unless the customer buys its "premium" version, according to Dennis Technology Labs, which also tested MacKeeper for IDG News Service.

Avira's free Mac AV product "includes updates and real-time protection," the labs noted.

Other MacKeeper tools already have an equivalent in OS X. MacKeeper's file shredder tool, listed as a $10 value, replicates "secure empty trash," built into OS X. The "default apps" tool, is similar to Apple's Finder.

When asked about the duplication, Fowler contended that MacKeeper is designed to provide one interface for utilities for less technical people that aren't familiar with Apple computers.

Kromtech continues to market the program aggressively and participated at the Macworld conference last year and the Consumer Electronics Show in January in Las Vegas. Over five years, 20 million copies of MacKeeper have been sold, Kromtech claims.

But ZeoBIT's proposed settlement over MacKeeper doesn't include Kromtech as a released party, which means it could be targeted by future lawsuits.

Edelson PC, a technology focused law firm that filed the suit, said it could not comment.

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com. Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk

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