Downloading? Watch Out For These Danger Signs

Category: Software

A while ago, I wrote about the problem of foistware, software that sneaks in during a download, without your knowledge or explicit consent. I fingered CNET for their Six-Part Horror Story that downloaders must endure. Today we'll look at two other popular download sites, to see if they are guilty of the same shenangigans...

Is It Still Safe to Download?

There are plenty of rogue sites on the Web, offering downloads that are either fake or malicious. But when we go looking for software downloads, we should be able to trust the big names like CNET, ZDNet, Adobe, Oracle and Tucows that have been around forever, right? Sadly, the answer is not always.

In my previous article DOWNLOAD ALERT: Foistware Warning, I wrote about the pervasive problem of foistware, and named names. If you've ever downloaded Adobe Reader or Java, you've experienced the problem of unwanted toolbars, sneaky downloads, and changes to your browser settings.

The problem is especially bad at CNET's Download.com site, and they deserve to be shunned and scorned for it.

In today's article, I'm looking at two other popular download sites, ZDNet and Tucows. Both have been around since the early days of the Internet, but at least one of them should be added to your "Do Not Visit" list. Let's take a look at both, and see how it goes while trying to download CCleaner, a popular Windows utility program.
Foistware Warning

ZDNet Downloads

After visiting the ZDNET Downloads page, I clicked on the CCleaner link, which was prominently listed on the home page as a Most Popular download title. A new screen appeared, with a red Download button. Clicking that link gave me a popup, asking me to login with my ZDNet account, or create a new account.

The "Join now" link led to a fairly intrusive form asking for email, name, street address, city, state, zip, phone, job category, and employer. At the bottom, it said that by submitting this form, "You also allow us to share your registration information with companies that provide content, products, or services featured in the TechRepublic Resource Library so that they may contact you about their products and services. You will also receive a complimentary subscription to the ZDNet's Tech Today and ZDNet Announce newsletters."

Because that sounded so horrible, I entered totally bogus info, and got thru to the next page where the download began automatically. (Sorry, ZDNET. If you see the one from "Nunna Yerbizz" that was me. You might want to make that an optional step, or simply ask for an email address. Who wants to give up all that personal info, and have it shared with marketers, just for a free download?)

Thankfully, from here on, the download process and the CCleaner install was simple and clean, no foistware. I wasn't asked to accept any sneaky downloads, or agree to any terms, conditions or privacy policies. Overall, I give the ZDNet download process a thumbs up, with reservations about that signup form.

Tucows Downloads

As in the previous example, my goal was to download CCleaner by visiting TUCOWS Downloads. The page loaded with an enormous 970x280 pixel "Top Download" banner at the top of the page, encouraging me to follow three easy steps "to identify what's causing your PC to slow down."

I ignored the enticing green "Click to Start" button, and scrolled down the page where I could enter CCleaner into a search box. Next screen showed a link for CCleaner, which I clicked. Could it be a simple one-click download, I wondered?

Alas, no. Another huge "Top Download" banner urged me to first download and run Uniblue's SpeedUpMyPC2014. But there was a green "Download Now" button flanked by the words "CCleaner 4.03" and "Download size 4.19MB". Even though it looked a lot like one of those scammy ads with the misleading Download buttons, I clicked.

After this rocky start, here's where the real ugliness began...

After downloading and launching what I thought was the CCleaner installer, an intermediate screen appeared, telling me me that by clicking "Accept" I was agreeing to FOUR separate documents, which were linked for my reading pleasure. I tried to view the Tucows "Terms and Conditions" and "Privacy Policy" but both of those links led to a "Not Found" error page. I was also told that I was agreeing to the "DownloadAdmin License Agreement and Privacy Policy."

I clicked to read those and it turns out DownloadAdmin adds another layer of indirection and slime to the download process. "DownloadAdmin™ is a Software Match Service. We offer our software match services to you in exchange for your agreement to view promotions, advertisements, or participate in other Offers. We may show you one or more partner software offers... We may also offer to: (i) change your browser’s homepage; (ii) change your default search provider; and (iii) install icons on your computer’s desktop, including third-party offers." Aaaaaaaaaaccccckkkk!

I pressed Accept anyway (just to take one for the team) but with the full knowledge that if System Restore didn't bail me out, I still had a fresh backup that I could resort to. Yet another screen popped up, telling me to "Click Accept now to continue your installation." Oh, but it also informed me that I had somehow "elected to download Search Protect by Conduit, a free desktop application that is designed to prevent attempts by other software you download from the Internet to change your preferred Browser settings." Oh, the irony! One program wants to change my browser settings, and the other wants to protect me from changes. My options now were Decline and Accept.

This time I declined, to see what would happen. Guess what? Another screen, nearly identical to the previous one. Once again, it said "Click Accept now to continue your installation". But in the small print: TWO pre-checked offers. One for TidyNetwork (exciting offers related to your interests and keywords on your web page) and Severe Weather Alert (Desktop Notifications when storms are heading your way). Oh, and there were even more third (or fourth?) party Terms and Conditions that I was tacitly agreeing to by hitting Accept. I didn't bother to read those.

Pressing Decline brought me to Round Three, and an offer to download something called Albrechto, which sounded to me like a fancy Italian shampoo. It promised to "add useful features and content to enrich website navigation, such as related search results, exclusive web offers, and advertisements." It also wanted to change my browser settings and "collect and share user info." Once again, Aaaaaaaaaaaccccckkkk! And Decline.

Round Four, more of the same. I am given the chance to download PalTalk Live Video Chat, with 5000 Video Chat Rooms and the chance to Meet New People Every Day! And of course, more legalese, Terms and Policies to accept. I hit Decline for the fourth time, and finally... "Your software is downloading, please be patient." This time the download was the real thing, and installed CCleaner without any unwanted parasites.

But what an ordeal. I stayed in the house, consumed by the thought that a shadowy guy in a trenchcoat and dark glasses might try to sell me a fake Rolex. Fortunately that didn't happen, but I still wondered if any malicious or unwanted software had snuck in, despite all my Declines. I'm very, very disappointed in TUCOWS, which once was a great resource.

UPDATE: Several readers correctly pointed out that I should have mentioned a few places to go for safe downloads. I've always had good experience at FileHippo.com. And I've previously written about Ninite, which provides safe downloads, and also automates the installation process.

Have you had experience with a download site that offered unwanted foistware? Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Downloading? Watch Out For These Danger Signs"

(See all 83 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

tiberiuscan
01 Mar 2014

Regardless of what site you use for downloads including the software sites like adobe or any apple software, NEVER choose EXPRESS install. Always chose CUSTOM or ADVANCED and you can uncheck all the crapware and toolbars imbedded in the installer.


Posted by:

joebatch
01 Mar 2014

Bob, You are so right about CNET. I stopped using them years ago for all the reasons in your article. They had the gall to send me a e-mail that they missed me and would I come back. I will do that the day after never.From you I learned to go to the site download pages,how ever just read about NINITE,sounds good, your opinion?


Posted by:

thefriz
01 Mar 2014

I do my downloading with a Linux "live" CD. If it messes up the browser or installs crapware, a reboot takes care of it.
You have to watch for programs, like Java that give you an installer that goes to their website and then installs the real program along with whatever you forgot to uncheck.


Posted by:

John
01 Mar 2014

Excellent article: informative and amusing.
[FYI for Bob: Clicked through to your article from a PC Pitstop e-mail message]


Posted by:

Sheri
01 Mar 2014

I am positively SHOCKED that someone who is supposed to be in the know, did not go directly to Piriform's website to download CCleaner, as I did!

Having said that though, I must admit that I have downloaded software only to find that it tries to foist other downloads on you when you try to install it. But if you simply click decline on however many foistware pages are presented to you, the installation usually goes ahead with no further problems. If it still produces problems, I always cancel the installation and look for a similar program that will install problem and foistware free!

EDITOR'S NOTE: I'm shocked that you're shocked! :-) I picked CCleaner merely as an example. There are plenty of programs that you CAN'T download from the software company's website (or you have to really dig for the direct download link) because they either don't have the bandwidth to support the downloads, or they have an agreement to forward their visitors to CNET.


Posted by:

Tom
03 Mar 2014

Couldn't agree with you more about c|net. I downloaded a video converter from them and got much more than I bargained for.


Posted by:

PK
03 Mar 2014

I've generally had good success with SnapFiles and have used it for many years. But first, I usually try to download programs and apps directly from the vendors' sites.


Posted by:

Ian
03 Mar 2014

In a related area I regularly (like daily) download "free" books, because I select the free option rather than subscribed (I'm on a pension), I have to contend with "captchas" and various unwanted add ons, pop ups and redirects. I have learnt to cope the hard way, I'm not a computer expert. First everything gets downloaded onto drive E, then after I run the .exe file which downloads the file I want. I use winzip to open the file in rtf format or if that is not available use "calibre" to convert it. Then I go to my browser and delete all the extensions that have been added, then use task manager to remove the programs creating these extensions.
Now I finally have the book in readable form! Now I have a new problem Microsoft word now says my copy is not activated (worked fine for the last 2 years!). So I've now installed Open Office.
In case you're wondering why I don't use the local Public library, I'm in Thailand, no public libraries and anyway no books in English.


Posted by:

Doug
03 Mar 2014

good article ... I dumped tucows years back , just for this reason .. and have recently noticed CNet doing the same ... so like another poster stated ... I try to use the software manufacturer's site for downloads ... Might use CNet to find them but don't download from there anymore.


Posted by:

bob
05 Mar 2014

Bob,--Re:your reply to Sheri (March 1). I have been using ROBOFORM PRO for many years, and they have become a bit like Microsoft with frequent updates/upgrades. About 2 or 3 years ago they moved all their updates/upgrades and Renewals to CNET and I have twice been caught with additional crapware not showing on the download page. Additionally, Bill P. of WinPatrol was advising against using FileHippo as it too was attaching "presents".


Posted by:

Beau
08 Mar 2014

I go directly to the software's site instead.


Posted by:

Dirty Sox
05 May 2014

Thanks, Bob.

It's too bad Piriform has forced Ninite.com to remove CCleaner from their website. I guess Piriform needs that Ask.com, etc. money.


Posted by:

larry
14 May 2014

The last time I re-newed Avast security suite they snuck in Google Chrome and tool bar. I was called away from my desk to help others when this happened. I go back and was going go to my bank and Google Chrome came on. I tried to use Internet Explorer and could not get online. I un-installed Google Chrome and Internet Explorer to work. I called their support and they wanted to charge me. I do use Google Chrome now with the security issue of IE. I heard from others that Avast has someone else do their support. I got that desktop straightened out, but my laptop that had that Avast security suite has slowed down. I put in another brand of security and it found some stuff, but still not like it was. I used the free Avast for years and liked it. I had trouble when I started buying it. I do not think they should try put other stuff on when you are paying. I guess never leave the desk when they install.


Posted by:

Clairvaux
09 Aug 2014

Your Tucows travails are quite a horror story. I checked their homepage, just out of curiosity. It's become very professional, modern, business-like... and inspires confidence ! I've just deleted them from my favorites, thanks to your excellent work.

Going to the publisher's website does not necessarily prevent foistware. One of my pet peeves is the way Adobe tries to force various products on you, like Google Chrome or MacAfee Security Scan, whenever you try to manually update Flash. You need to uncheck it every time.


Posted by:

NA Peters
20 Sep 2014

What is wrong with MajorGeeks.com for the freeware downloads. No crap yet.


Posted by:

Warren
15 Dec 2014

Great article & pleased that you took the time to advise your viewers of these 'nasties' Browser Hijaaks are increasing, annoying & so easy for the not too savvy computer user to get 'sucked in' unwittingly only to be faced with problems that they had never encountered. I use Adaware Cleaner but be sure you go to the author's site to download this. Another is Avast Browser Cleanup, a 2.8mb download that removes malicious 'tool-bars' that users really didnt know existed on their computer.
Combo-fix is another very good piece of software
for 'digging deep' [takes a while to complete the task but does do a great job] One does have to be
very observant when downloading/installing new
software-often small ticked checkboxes can be
overlooked if you become a little impatient.
An example & I have been caught a couple of times
with Adobe Flash player updates where the 'stub'
install file has a checked 'MacAfee Free Scan'
This is easy to overlook, I prefer not to add any
additional Anti-virus conflicting software, I am
sure they dont like each other too much.
Bob, your articles are very good, thanks for your
efforts producing these time consuming tasks.

Warren


Posted by:

InLionSk8r
15 Dec 2014

Good thing that you declined that Conduit offer. One of my customers accidentally downloaded that bad boy and his computer hasn't been the same ever since. Several people looked at his machine and figured that he had picked up some viruses. But his computer was running Avast and technically didn't have ANY true malware (as defined) on it. But it was virtually crippled by adware, toolbars, browser hijackers, etc.. It took me hours to remove it and its many nasty friends. Additionally, more people need to be aware that it's not only viruses and root-kits that can cause file corruption. His was among several others I've worked on this year, where their Windows 8 updater hasn't worked properly after accumulating this kind of stuff. I've exhausted all of the inexpensive solutions posted on Windows and numerous other forums, leaving only the time-consuming Refresh-and-Re-Installation-of-all-Your-Programs, option. (Given the choice, most folks prefer to save their money and get Windows 10 next Spring.) With these kinds of things going on regularly now, unauthorized downloads definitely need to be taken more seriously. Tanx for another great article, Bob.


Posted by:

Kaarlo von Freymann
16 Dec 2014

Thanks Bob,
good to get your newsletter. One more thing that gals me is that the internet is full of crooks, first offering you to download the free edition. It works. Then after some time you get a notice: "free upgrade". You do that and after that your old version is deleted from your PC and the new supposedly free works only if you pay. Note: "Free download" is often a scam. Even my working paid for Adobe Photoshop Elements 4 disappeared after I downloaded a trial version of a more recent edition.

Kaarlo von Freymann Helsinki Finland


Posted by:

Connor
01 Jan 2015

Hey Bob, just read in this that you mentioned that if system restore couldn't bail you out, you still had a full backup. I just thought perhaps you should look into a Virtual Machine so you don't have to put your main operating system through all this.


Posted by:

RiverRain
16 Jan 2015

I download my software from Softpedia or MajorGeeks, and I don't have this problem.


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