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Opinion: Security companies' automatic renewals are a disgrace

By Ira Winkler
June 12, 2009 09:48 AM ET

Computerworld -

Back in the 1980s and '90s, many people believed that antivirus vendors were writing and distributing viruses to create a need for their products. I cannot say unequivocally that there was no truth to that -- a lot of companies were trying to enter the market, and many disappeared quickly without a trace. But a conspiracy as big as imagined in the rumor mills would have been uncovered in the last 20 years. The fact is that a lot of people are cynical, and a significant number of them are prone to believe conspiracy theories. Personally, I tried to defend the antivirus product vendors whenever I heard such talk.

I'm not so charitable toward a current practice of antivirus vendors. Because of a recent experience, I have started advocating against subscribing to automatic renewals of antivirus software. I still believe that every system should run antivirus, anti-spyware and firewall software (yes, that includes Macs). Unfortunately, the two leading vendors , Symantec and McAfee, have shamed the industry by taking part in a scheme that is in many ways as bad as distributing viruses -- and certainly has the same motivation.

I submitted a version of this article earlier this week in which I complained about McAfee and what I consider to be one of the scummiest terms of service agreements I have ever seen. I've had to revise it a bit, but not to back down on my scorn for McAfee's scheme. The reason is that the next day, I saw an article saying that the New York attorney general had fined Symantec and McAfee $375,000 for their surreptitious automatic renewal clauses.

For me, this began when I received a notice from McAfee that it had taken the liberty of automatically renewing a license for software that I had no desire to renew. I found this liberty shocking

Making the matter worse, the message seemed fake. My initial reaction was to assume it was a phishing attempt, and I nearly deleted it. Red flags were a link, not to, but to a site with a similar name,, and references to McAfee's international divisions.

Taking a cautious approach, I went to McAfee's Web site and found a customer service telephone number. To McAfee's credit, the customer service rep was efficient and canceled the automatic renewal without any trouble. Since I never sign up for automatic renewals of antivirus software, I asked the rep why McAfee had automatically renewed my subscription. The answer disturbed me: McAfee has built automatic renewal into its terms of service.

So, when you buy or renew McAfee software online, you are unwittingly agreeing to subscribe to McAfee forever. This fact is buried in the terms of service. You have to specifically opt out of this, and you are most likely going to know about it only fact after you have been charged, as was my case. McAfee specifically says that you agree to automatic descriptions not by actually agreeing to them, but by "charging a valid credit card number which you have provided to McAfee."

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