Spyware Horror Story: Stowaway pirate

It isn't always easy buying computers abroad. When things go wrong, fixing them might be even harder.

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Spyware Horror Story

Submitted by Peter; Cordoba, Argentina

I'm a writer, currently living in Argentina. My native (and working) language is English. Obviously, word processing software is a vital tool for me. I bought my last computer, a beefed-up HP 2200, in Cordoba, Argentina. Unfortunately, I had to accept the Windows XP Pro OS, in Spanish, that the vendors supplied it with. I specified that MS Office should be included and it was; alas, in Spanish. When I contacted the MS people in Redmond, Wash., about a download in English--there are complicated restrictions about getting CDs through the local customs--I was informed that I had to work through Microsoft Argentina as "...our software distributed to that country is substantially different to the U.S...". End of story? Not even close.

It turns out that the vendor's Office 2003 installation on my computer was pirated! I paid for a license, but in my own foolishness, I didn't check the package for documentation. These people have since gone out of business and their firm exists with new owners.

I worked for a year with the computer offline, then a year ago I connected to an ADSL link and because I run some networked applications, it is on 24-7. About six months into this, Office started to go wrong. At first it froze and I had to close it with the Task Manager. Then the whole system became progressively less stable. Scans with Norton, Ad-Aware, and other security software came back clean. That's as far as my geek ability can get me, so I finally had to wipe the drives. My budget doesn't allow for an effective backup, so I must have been able to recover about half my files.

Now I'm running a "clean" XP, the vendor's original, have downloaded and am about to install Ubuntu (with dual boot,) and am collecting a lot of very effective open-source and or free software through Source Forge, CNET, and the open community in general. I'm finding not only some really impressive stuff, but also a huge number of very intelligent and willing volunteers out there to give help whenever I'm about to hit the panic button. For a Net newbie nitwit like me, that's often.

CNET Download.com editor

Editor's response

Buying technological goods in foreign countries can be a challenge, and I speak from personal experience. The ease of acquisition and quality of choice tend to follow global economic currents, and our old friends--supply and demand--return to explain how in cooler markets, local buyers wind up paying princely sums for smaller selection. In truth, gradations of service and quality span continents, countries, and cities. Just take San Francisco, where consumers buy goods in retail shops, thrift stores, and in informal economies, such as Craigslist. The major difference I see is that locals are better suited to recognize, and therefore navigate, the risk.

If we had the power to give Peter a do-over, he would likely put as much research into the source of his purchase as he would into the laptop model. There are three immediate things one in his shoes could do when deciding where to buy big-ticket items:

1. Call the manufacturer. It may be a pain to calculate time zone differences, buy a calling card, and wade through automated menus, but in Peter's case, asking about certified distributors in his area could have made a huge difference.

2. Harvest recommendations. You're not the only foreign national wherever you are. After checking with local friends about where they make their purchases, interview the other expats (there are often social groups), and go case the suggested stores for prices, selection, warranties, and evidence of good management.

3. Take advantage of the long tail. Spend a few hours with a friends' computer or at an Internet cafe to search for advice or ratings online. See if there's a larger distributor that will ship to you from a major city, or check local versions of Amazon.com or similar online stores for their stock and shipping rates. International shipping charges are often substantial, but if you've got close friends and family with access to a virtual or brick-and-mortar store you know and trust, buy yourself a power converter (locally) and reimburse your gophers for all other costs.

With regard to the software itself, Microsoft Office isn't the only productivity suite around, and Microsoft Word isn't the sole word processor. AbiWord and Dark Room are two freeware applications more than capable of handling compositions. AbiWord is multilanguage, with an interface reminiscent of Microsoft Word and WordPerfect, where Dark Room keeps the background full screen and inky to focus the author on their text. OpenOffice.org is a well-lauded, open-source productivity suite that includes spreadsheet, presentation, and drawing programs with its Microsoft-like word processor.

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About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.