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FTC accuses pop-up maker of 'extortion'

A little-used feature on Microsoft's Windows allows unscrupulous marketers to fill computer screens with unwanted ads, the FTC said.
A little-used feature on Microsoft's Windows allows unscrupulous marketers to fill computer screens with unwanted ads, the FTC said.

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. regulators said this week that Microsoft Corp. Windows users should turn off a little-used feature that allows unscrupulous marketers to bombard them with unwanted "pop-up" ads.

Windows users should disable a back-door communications channel called Windows Messenger Service to prevent unscrupulous marketers from filling their screens with unwanted ads, the Federal Trade Commission said Thursday.

The FTC said it had temporarily shut down one marketer, San Diego-based D Squared Solutions, which had, ironically, sold pop-up blocking software through pop-up ads that could appear even when the user was online but not browsing the Web.

"'I'll beat you, and I'll stop beating you if you pay.' We call that extortion, and it's no different in the high-tech world," said Howard Beales, the head of the FTC's consumer-protection division.

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Beales added that the agency would seek to force D Squared to return the money it had collected from consumers.

D Squared could not be immediately reached for comment.

Beales said consumers should install firewall software or disable Windows Messenger, which allows computer network administrators to communicate with others on their networks but is unnecessary for home users. It is unrelated to popular instant-messaging software such as AOL Instant Messenger.

The FTC advice was another black eye for the world's largest software maker, which has struggled to improve software security as a wave of computer viruses have spread through holes in Windows and other Microsoft products.

Microsoft advised consumers to disable Messenger last month because it could potentially serve as a conduit for Internet worms. Separately, consumer complaints prompted Time Warner Inc.'s America Online to disable the feature on customer computers. Time Warner is the parent company of

A Microsoft spokesman said future versions of Windows would ship with Messenger turned off but said the company should not be faulted for enabling Windows Messenger.

"At the time we released Windows XP, it wasn't an issue that was being abused," Microsoft spokesman Sean Sundwall said.

The unwanted ads -- which the FTC said could pop up every 10 minutes for months on end -- may be an annoyance, but they do not rise to the level of a security risk, Sundwall said.

Beales said D Squared, not Microsoft, should be blamed for the ads.

Another company called Scintillant Inc. is sending similar pop-up ads, the FTC said in court documents seeking an injunction against D Squared. Beales declined to say whether the consumer-protection agency was planning to sue Scintillant.

Consumers can find out how to disable Windows Messenger at

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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