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Among the ever-increasing payload of spam landing each day in users' inboxes, there is certainly a burgeoning market for missives promoting OEM software - programmes originally distributed with system hardware. "DONT BE SILLY TO PAY HUNDRED FOR SOFTWARES" is typical. "Take discount on Microsoft, Corel, Adobe stuff from Cortes's Stuff Store" or "NEVER PAY MORE THAN $100 FOR UR SOFTWARES" are other familiar exhortations.

Softwares? More likely softwarez, commercial software that has been pirated and made available to the public via the Net. The use of the acronym "OEM" seems nothing more than a lame excuse to legitimise the sale of illegal software.

As many as four out of every 10 software titles sold on the Web may be counterfeit or illegal copies, software industry trade association Business Software Alliance (BSA) believes. It once estimated that there are at least 840,000 websites selling illegal software as the real thing. Earlier this year SurfControl announced that OEM scams now account for one in every 20 emails.

"The websites selling pirated software appear legitimate, using convincing graphics and copies of manufacturers' logos, but are increasingly the vehicle of choice used by criminal organisations to dupe businesses and consumers into buying illegal software," Beth Scott of BSA EMEA commented. Last week his organisation alterted businesses in Europe to the growing trend in spam offering pirated software.

It is not difficult to recognise the pirates from reputable resellers: their prices are typically much lower than those offered by official resellers. They often use anonymous domain hosting services and their sites lack sufficient contact information. More importantly, the software they offer is unlikely to be OEM. Adobe never offered Acrobat or Photoshop (with the exception of Photoshop Elements) as OEM software, but it is widely available from OEM vendors.

Take a closer look and you’ll learn that only three enterprises and an assembly of affiliates are responsible for selling pirated software on the Web. OEM Solutions Ltd seem to be operating from China, while OEMCD Inc has most of its servers in Brazil, but many of the spamvertised domain names are registered by Romanian or Russian citizens. OEMCD claims that the software is shipped from Eastern Europe. Soft-For-Sale.com is another dubious outfit, most likely situated somewhere in the Ukraine.

The Eastern connection doesn't come as a surprise. In the past, low wages and high prices of legal software have created a profitable market for pirated software in Russia and other countries. Piracy rates in Russia are a dramatic 91 per cent for business applications and 93 per cent for entertainment software, according to Eric Schwartz, counsel to the International Intellectual Property Association.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, computers began to flood into the country from Taiwan, Germany and the US. Many Russians could hardly afford to spend $800 or more on a PC and those who did buy a computer were in no position to consider purchasing their software legitimately.

People ordering from OEM software vendors usually do receive their software, according to several forum reports, but it comes without the manufacturer's packaging, manuals or customer support, making it very difficult to check authenticity. More importantly, by ordering the software from these vendors you are likely to subsidise enterprises with fingers buried deep in the organised crime pie. ®

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