Amateur radio fans drop the ham-mer on HRD's license key 'blacklist'

Remotely killing one customer's copy was not an isolated incident, say readers

On Monday, The Register reported on the story of Jim Giercyk, an amateur radio enthusiast who had his copy of the popular Ham Radio Deluxe (HRD) software revoked after posting a negative review.

Since our story was published, a number of Reg readers, including Giercyk himself and HRD's makers, have followed up with us regarding claims that this was not an isolated incident and others may have had their license keys blacklisted for being publicly critical of the company. And just to be clear: by blackballing keys, installed copies of the software stop working.

Giercyk, a professional musician in South Carolina, US, says that after his dealings with HRD Software (which has since reinstated his software key) and the statement made by the developer's co-owner Dr Michael Carper, he takes issue with claims made by the company. Giercyk, aka N2SUB, told us on Tuesday:

The issue is not the refusal of service, the issue is that HRD disabled my software, and then offered to enable it in exchange for the removal of an online review of their product. It’s extortion, not refusal of service.

Giercyk also said that since he went public about his blacklisting last week, he has received messages from other users who have stories of their software keys being revoked by HRD without their knowledge for speaking up about having a bad support experience. He added:

I hate bullies, and that’s what I was dealing with at HRD, so I decided to stand my ground. I took a lot of lumps from people in the various forums at the beginning, but I also received encouraging emails almost immediately which gave me the courage to continue.

I want to thank everyone around the world who supported me inside and outside the forums.

El Reg has also heard from other hams who wanted to share their unpleasant experiences with HRD and a customer service problem they say goes well beyond the single rogue "contracted support employee" blamed by HRD for revoking Giercyk's license.

One reader, Karel Cornelis, claims that his copy of HRD was blocked because he was thought to be a member of a Yahoo! group critical of HRD, and the license was only restored by co-owner Rick Ruhl after Cornelis proved he was not affiliated with the group.

A number of other readers pointed out a collection of bad reviews posted on hobbyist site eHam by customers who had their license keys blacklisted. HRD told us some of those users could have written their assessments after requesting a refund and deactivating their software, thus their licenses will appear revoked.

Meanwhile, Reddit threads and follow-up discussions to Giercyk's catalyst forum post reveal similar stories of keys being revoked after critical comments about Ham Radio Deluxe have appeared online. Other sources allege some amateur radio forums have in the past deleted posts critical of HRD.

Reader Adam Marin says he couldn't even get out of the trial stage without running afoul of grouchy staffers. He told us:

I downloaded their software to try with my radio as I am a newly licensed ham. The software wasn't connecting to my radio, and I had asked a question about it on their Facebook page. I found out that I needed to make my own cable in order for the radio to actually connect. I said something to the effect that I am glad that there is a trial because I would hate to spend all that money and find out it doesn’t work because the description of the support of my radio was not clear. They booted me from their Facebook page and even went so far as to block me so I can't even find their Facebook page.

Yet another story shared with The Reg was that of a Scottish radio operator with the handle GM4JR, who says his unpleasant support experience included accusations of hacking and threats of legal action:

HRD is a good product, a little costly but if supported correctly, would be good value for money. However, the arrogant and abusive attitude of what I call 'level 2' support, the front line guys are fine, is where the problem lies.

They desperately need to resolve this – taking money for support which, when needed, isn't forthcoming is a poor show – to then abuse the customer in their hour of need is disgraceful, but to have the stupidity to do it all in black and white email threads beggars belief.

HRD Software's Dr Carper told us that while his company's application does have a blacklist of license keys, the blocking mechanism is sometimes used to disable copies of the software once the buyer has asked for a refund. Thus, we're told, it is difficult for HRD Software to know exactly how many keys have been cancelled for legit reasons or out of retaliation – it simply doesn't know. Dr Carper added:

Everyone will assume that all these cases are retaliation. That's simply not true.

Carper also rejected the suggestion that HRD is blocking customers based on the individual's callsign, maintaining that blocks are only based on registration keys. That claim has been challenged by Giercyk.

What has been made clear thus far is that HRD is a product that, while used by thousands within the amateur radio community, is distributed by a company seen by some as a bully. Hopefully, for the sake of HRD and ham operators alike, the developer can repair the rift and mend its ties with its userbase.

One thing is sure: the episode should be a lesson to any software maker that locks out users for being honest about its products online. It's such a terrible strategy, guaranteed to backfire. ®


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