Were Lavasoft's buyers once on its hit list?
Shining a light on Solaria acquisition
Anti-spyware company Lavasoft AB is now owned by a set of online entrepreneurs who have been linked with misleading websites.
The Montreal-based entrepreneurs, who purchased the company's assets in January, have previously been accused of selling the free versions of Lavasoft products to unwitting internet users as recently as 2007 via cyber-squatting sites.
Lavasoft, originally based in Sweden, was purchased by an investment fund called Solaria in January, but no other holdings can be found for Solaria. In fact, the only ties that Solaria has are to the founders of Upclick, an affiliate marketing company. The founders of this company have also founded companies that sold online porn, reskinned peer-to-peer filesharing software, and allegedly "skimmed" online sales, charging customers for software that they did not order.
Solaria bought Lavasoft on 18 January 2011. Its listing in Businessweek reveals that it began operating as a subsidiary of Lulu Software after the acquisition, and is now also known as LVS Software. Lulu Software is registered as 7270356 Canada Inc in Montreal (4-page PDF/163KB).
Shortly after the acquisition, other evidence of links between Lavasoft and UpClick began to surface. Calin Ioan Udrea, the former director of marketing for UpClick, relisted himself on LinkedIn as the director of marketing for Lavasoft in February.
Bad boys done good?
Dadoun and Assouline have a long history when it comes to internet marketing. They are also the men behind Interactive Brands, an affiliate marketing firm listed as the registrant of multiple domains linked to fraudulent activity, including spyware, and fake geneology sites. Interactive Brands was selling Lavasoft's Ad-Aware in 2007 using a variety of domains, including adaware-ib.com. This domain was listed in a Rip-off Report complaint by a customer who found the site in a web search, purchased Ad-Aware through it, and who said that he was charged for extra software that he did not ask for.
Interactive Brands also operated sites that drew attention from legitimate players in other markets. One was searchyourgeneology.com, which was reported by legitimate geneology site Ancestry.com in 2008. Ancestry.com said, in a 2008 post: "Potential customers are lured to purchase under what we feel to be false, misleading and deceitful promotional material, and get little or no value out of money spent at the websites. Blog and message board posts from the community confirm this opinion."
Lulu Software's current CEO, Eric Gareau, lists himself on his LinkedIn page as the president of Interactive Brands from 2006 until 2010, providing a further link between Lulu Software and Dadoun and Assouline.
At least one of the websites operated by Interactive Brands and selling Ad-Aware was registered to Steve Dimech, who is listed as a board member of LVS Software (2-page PDF/62.1KB).
Ad-aware2007.com, which was selling Ad-Aware to customers in 2007, was at the time registered to Dimech.
Assouline and Dadoun also operated an ecommerce credit card processing company called Market Engines, based in Montreal. The company operated a panoply of websites, such as Download-It-Free.com, FreeMP3Lover.com, Mp3MusicAccess.com and eMuleCenter.com. Market Engines operated a call centre to help sell users reskinned software that was available to users for free elsewhere. The company justified it at the time by claiming that the money charged was for "technical support".
Market Engines claimed to be owned by Malta-based MP3 Networks, which also had offices in the Caribbean, and which was set up in July 2004, five months before Market Engines started business. The director of MP3 Networks was Charles Assouline, now also listed as a board member for LVS Software AB, Lavasoft's registered company name.
Sites operated by Dadoun and Assouline's companies have recently been listed as "high risk" by URL-scanning services including McAfee's SiteAdvisor. Netspyprotector.com is listed on the reputation analysis site MalwareURL as a site offering access to rogue software. Although the Netprotector domain is now privately registered, its contact page still shows it as belonging to MP3 Networks Ltd at its Caribbean address.
Both of these domains are hosted at 126.96.36.199. Other domains hosted at this IP include error-doctors.com, which McAfee calls a high-risk, malicious site, due to marketing/merchandising practices. This is registered at 48/4 Amery Street, Sliema SLM 1701, which is the same address now listed as a contact address for Lavasoft in Malta, following the Solaria acquisition.
Others registered to Market Engines at Maltese addresses – hosted at the same IP address – and receiving suspicious site ratings, include myxptools.com (WOT rating, McAfee rating), thenuker.com (WOT, McAfee), and easy-antivirus.com (WOT, McAfee).
The technical contact for all these sites is listed as another Dadoun – Stephane – with an Upclick.com email address. Stephane Dadoun is listed on Linkedin as IT director at Upclick.
The 188.8.131.52 address is in a block owned by a hosting firm called Rack Engines. Rackengines.com is also registered to Market Engines at the Maltese address. Its ARIN records show David Dadoun as a contact.
Follow the money...
Sofie Bergström, who worked with Lavasoft as CFO and who recently left, was listed as a person authorised to receive service of process on the company registration form for LVS Software. "I don't know anything about the fund. It's the Canadian fund from Montreal, that's all I know," she told El Reg. "There have been a lot of changes, and the organisation is now working from Montreal, and Malta, and Sweden." She claimed no knowledge of Charles Assouline or Dimech.
Calls and emails to Lavasoft elicited no response, but Dadoun responded: "We have read your questions and we fail to see how they are pertinent to your audience or anybody in particular and it would appear that you pick and choose bits and parcels to prove a point you've already decided in your head.
"We decided to buy Lavasoft because of its core technology, its loyal user base and the belief that with the right investment – the company can once more rise to its true potential," he continued.
"In the short term since our acquisition, we've worked hard with the team in place, on the next version of Ad-Aware (soon to be released) – making it about 10X faster than the current version, removing all nagware, bettering its protection, slimming down its executable and re-offering a 'classic' version of the product due to high customer demand."
He also said that the company had "reviewed sales and customer service practices to make them more coherent with the values the brand purports" [sic]. The company has seen a sharp drop in customer complaints (both from free and paid users), he added.
The fact remains that Lavasoft's new owners are linked to sites that popular anti-malware services have listed as highly risky – including sites that sold Lavasoft's own software in the past. Perhaps the most telling link is a blog post from Lavasoft itself, in 2007, singling out Interactive Brands for selling their software under false pretences. "We are in no way associated with this company and frown upon their practices," Lavasoft said at the time. That may have been true in 2007, but times have clearly changed... ®