Anti-virus upgrade offers short-changing customersUpgrades 'lob months off existing subscriptions'

03 December 2010

Consumers who upgrade their anti-virus protection via discounted offers by Symantec and AVG are in danger of being short-changed, a Which? Computing investigation into security software charging problems has found.

Discounted offers are sent via emails or appear as pop-up alerts to a user’s PC urging them to upgrade their existing anti-virus protection to a more powerful version - usually at a reduced price.

But Which? Computing has heard from several customers who claim that by signing up to these offers they lost months off of their existing anti-virus subscription. Following the complaints, we decided to investigate the upgrade policies of several anti-virus software makers.

Symantec's upgrade offers ‘short-changes’ customers

Symantec Corporation, makers of Norton anti-virus software, admitted that its discounted offers work this way. ‘If customers upgrade, the new subscription will begin when they install and activate the upgrade product,’ the company told us.

‘If customers install and activate the upgrade prior to the expiration of the time remaining on their existing product subscriptions, any time remaining on their existing product will not be added to their upgrade.’

Symantec defended its practice by saying that its upgrades provide additional features and more comprehensive protection.

‘Subscription renewals do not change the product or add features, they simply allow the existing product to continue to get the latest virus updates and threat protection,’ it said.

Have you been short-changed by anti-virus firms? Share your views on Which? Conversation.

AVG’s discounted offers

Which? Computing found that AVG’s discounted upgrade offers work along similar lines to Symantec’s. ‘As is very common with the software industry, all our products have a specific time frame - one or two years from activation date – and we recommend that our customers renew their products as close to their expiration dates to ensure that they maximize this time,’ AVG told us when we challenged them on the practice.

Lack of industry renewal standards

Not all anti-virus software vendors operate their renewals business in this manner. Panda Security told us that this wasn’t the company’s policy and is not how the system worked in practice. ‘When a customer buys an upgrade, the remaining time of services are added to the remaining time on their current contract,’ a spokesperson said.

McAfee’s said it only sent out upgrades approximately 35 days before the expiration date of any existing subscription. ‘While the automatic renewal does happen 30 days prior to expiration, the renewal will only count from the date of expiration,’ it said.

BitDefender’s said its procedure for the vast majority of its renewing customers is to extend existing licence keys and automatically add on any outstanding licence key validity, meaning no licence time is lost.

BitDefender did say, however, that if a customer buys a different product or a product with a different number of permitted users, then they may be issued with a new licence key that is separate to their existing key without validity being added automatically.

‘This is because the value of the licence period varies for different products and numbers of users, meaning it cannot be automatically added to existing keys for different products or user numbers,’ BitDefender said.

It said it was ‘always happy to extend the licence of a new product in line with any existing valid licence period wherever needed’.

‘If a customer wishes to consolidate remaining time on multiple licence keys they should contact our support department who will be happy to assist,’ BitDefender added.

Which? says

‘Symantec and AVG are operating a confusing and arguably misleading anti-virus upgrade service,’ said Sarah Kidner, Which? Computing editor.

‘If consumers are given the opportunity to upgrade at a reduced price, it’s perfectly reasonable for them to expect their new licence to run on from the end of the existing licence.

‘No one expects a discounted offer to cancel out the remaining time left on an existing subscription; if they did, they most likely wouldn’t buy it. And let’s not forget many of these promotions are for a limited time only,’ she added.

She explained that while the terms and conditions of these offers may well support these practices, the reality is that some consumers won't be aware of the loss of time remaining on their security subscription.

‘We are calling on the industry to either stop this practice or make it clear to consumers from the outset that by upgrading in this way, they’re shortening the terms on their existing subscriptions,’ she says.

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