The 10 most annoying tactics of technology companies

The everyday practices of hardware, software, and Web firms can drive their customers bonkers. Here's how to fight back.

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Software that nags you to buy or upgrade

Major offenders: Intuit, McAfee, Symantec

The problem: Talk about irony--McAfee Internet Security and similar applications aim to simplify your life by protecting your PC, but they annoy the heck out of you in the process. They never stop nagging you to upgrade to a bigger, better version or to renew your subscription (even though it doesn't expire for another six months). It's like dealing with a pesky little kid who's always demanding your attention.

Larry Campbell, a retired Air Force captain from Fairview Heights, Illinois, recently found himself nagged to distraction by software maker McAfee. Though his antivirus utility's subscription wasn't due to expire until May of this year, the company started campaigning for a renewal last October, sending no fewer than eight e-mail alerts--enough to prompt his decision: "I am not renewing," he says, "but will switch to another company in May."

If such nonstop nagging can actually drive customers away, why do companies do it? McAfee's explanation was about what you'd expect. "McAfee sends promotional offers to subscribers that feature discounts on the current product they have subscribed to and/or discounts on suites that offer additional levels of protection," said a company rep. "We want consumers to remain protected and not experience any lapses in protection." The rep went on to note that customers can easily opt out of such offers by unsubscribing. She also apologized for annoying Campbell with all the e-mail.

The fix: Unfortunately, nagging seems to be a part of modern computing. Any company that has taken your money once will work hard to take more of it. You can always try freeware alternatives--Avast 4 Home Edition and Avira AntiVir Personal offer robust virus protection, for instance--but don't be surprised if you get nagged to buy their commercial counterparts.

Full-Screen ads that precede home pages

Major offenders: CareerBuilder, Forbes, Monster

The problem: You head to your favorite site in search of the latest news, only to be stopped cold by some lame splash-screen advertisement. (Okay, PCWorld.com is guilty here, too, as are our major competitors. But at least we don't call it a Welcome Screen, as Forbes.com does.) Or you visit a jobs site to peruse the latest postings, but a come-on for a resume builder or an online degree program intervenes--and it isn't just a pop-up, either, but a full-screen blockade.

Sure, these "interstitial" or "transitional" ads pay for your free content and services. "They're no different than commercial breaks, and most users are willing to accept advertising to not pay for content," says Pesach Lattin, CEO of New York-based ad agency Vizi. But can't marketers wait until we get to the site before bombarding us?

The fix: Firefox users should try the Adblock Plus extension, which suppresses not only button and banner ads but also transitional ads. Internet Explorer 7 users can find similar capabilities in IE7Pro. Meanwhile, advertisers take note: You could grab more eyeballs by creating ads that make us want to watch. Show us something funny or surprising. Offer a freebie. Visitors may click past the ad anyway, but at least make an effort!

Canned e-mail responses

Major offenders: Too many to list

The problem: The scan function on your multifunction printer won't work. You fire off an e-mail to the manufacturer's tech-support department, and a few minutes later a reply lands in your inbox. Wow, fast service! Suspiciously fast, in fact: Turns out it's just an automated response acknowledging receipt of your message. Or a boilerplate list of common questions and answers--none of which apply. Talk about tossing a boat anchor to the man who has just fallen overboard.

Bob Cameron, a systems administrator from Lawrenceville, Georgia, needed Yahoo's help with an e-mail problem: The service was blocking messages sent from his church to members with Yahoo accounts. So he visited Yahoo's support site, spent considerable time collecting the information that Yahoo requires for reporting an issue, and submitted his help request. In return, he received a canned response "asking me for the same information that I had already spent all that time collecting and editing." When he tried again, another response promised a personal answer within 48 hours (it never came) and directed him to the very site where he'd submitted the support request in the first place.

Seems like tech companies are doing more canning than Campbell's Soup. We contacted Yahoo--and received no response. We also got the silent treatment from HP, another company that dispatches canned replies to requests for help.

The fix: Believe it or not, we're willing to cut companies a little slack on this one, as support departments receive huge volumes of help requests, and a canned response at least assures you that your mail arrived. But when companies promise a personal follow-up, they'd better deliver. If the company doesn't answer your queries, you can always call tech support--or try a live online-chat session, if that's an option. In fact, both alternatives should yield much faster and more efficient results than e-mail.

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