Symantec sued for creating and inflating PC health scares

January 16, 2012

Computer virusWe’ve all seen them while surfing the web: ads that tell you that your computer is infected, not running as fast as it could, or is afflicted with some other malady.

When seeing these kinds of things, most of us usually disregard them as efforts by shady companies and individuals trying to make a quick buck by scaring hapless consumers into purchasing useless software.

According to a new lawsuit, though, one of the most reputable PC security companies – Symantec – is guilty of these same tactics.

The lawsuit, filed last Tuesday, claims that the Norton Anti-Virus maker offers free diagnostic scans through three of its software products, and that the result of such scans is always the same: your computer has problems – problems that can only be fixed by purchasing the full version of the product.

Specifically, the lawsuit states that the scans always report that the user’s computer’s “System Health” is “LOW,” that “High Priority” errors exist on the system, and that the user’s “Privacy Health” and “Disk Health” are “LOW.”

The software reports these results in such an alarmist fashion that the lawsuit collectively refers to the three products – Tools Registry Mechanic, PC Tools Performance Toolkit, and Norton Utilities – as Symantec’s “Scareware.”

Despite the results reported and the accompanying urgency to take action, the complaint asserts that “by any stretch of the imagination, the errors detected as ‘High Priority’ are not credible threats to a computer’s functionality.”

In fact, not only are the risks exaggerated, but are also invented outright.

What’s worse, the complaint alleges that the software returns the same results for every user, regardless of what is actually present on the user’s computer.

As alleged, the complaint’s claims are a textbook example of fraudulent inducement (tricking someone into a contract), which the complaint’s causes of action either are, or are related to in some way.

As such, the lawsuit will primarily come down to the facts.

Given how technical the details are here, we can expect to see expert testimony, and we can expect to see a lot of it.

The plaintiff has gotten a head start on this: his attorneys have engaged computer forensics experts to examine Symantec’s Scareware before filing the lawsuit, and their findings (unsurprisingly) support the plaintiff’s accusations.

Despite the difficulty in sometimes ascertaining and defining an actual threat to a PC, it’s very likely that the plaintiff could prevail here, and the consequences could be quite far-reaching.

The immediate impact will be felt on PC security providers, who would then have to be far more careful in the results they promise from their products.

Beyond that, makers of PC software that “improves performance” may find themselves in a similar situation.

Indeed, the success of this lawsuit may change the face of much of the PC software market.

Because of the difficulty of qualifying results achieved against the results promised and the general unfamiliarity of the public with PCs, software makers have been making extravagant claims for years.

Really, it has become the norm in marketing such products.

As consumers become more tech-savvy and start to increasingly question the efficacy of PC software, these kinds of lawsuits will likely become more common – regardless of the outcome of this particular suit against Symantec.