By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website
Criminal gangs are increasingly taking advantage of the internet to peddle counterfeit software, say experts.
Pirated software is a major problem in parts of Asia
According to an investigator for the trade body, the Business Software Alliance (BSA), criminals hawking counterfeit or cracked software are tapping into the e-commerce potential of the net.
The internet helps the software pirates reach a much bigger pool of customers; it boosts profits because the code can just be downloaded instead of burned on to a CD; it is also cheap and easy to set up so-called warez sites.
Moreover, the chances of being caught are pretty low. It all adds up to a serious problem for those tackling the selling and pirating of software online.
It is an issue acknowledged by the BSA investigator, known only as Mr X. He has to keep his identity secret so he can do his job effectively and avoid the real threats of harm he regularly receives.
"It's getting harder," he says. "Organised crime has definitely picked up on this trend."
There is no doubt that many of those peddling pirated programs are from organised crime gangs, said Mr X.
Recent raids on pirates have turned up bundles of cash, fake driving licences and passports as well as counterfeit software.
And it is not just the experienced criminals that are using web technology to distribute the pirated warez.
Some pirates are using peer-to-peer software such as BitTorrent to share the load of downloading what can be very big programs.
They use sophisticated techniques such as Distributed Hash Tables to make it more difficult to track down where the files are held.
Others have turned to older systems such as Usenet and label files using the NZB format to make sure that downloaders pick up all the different parts of the program they are after.
Software and entertainment products were the second most counterfeited category of goods according to a report released in late July by Canada's Gieschen Consultancy.
For the first time, the names of Microsoft and Adobe joined those of Prada, Adidas and Nike in the names of the top 10 most counterfeited brands.
But, says Mr X, the progress is not all one way.
He says the BSA is also a heavy user of technology to track down sites offering counterfeit goods and the people behind the trade in pirated programs.
The complexity of net protocols makes using the net anonymously far harder than people believe, says Mr X, and that includes the pirates.
Analysis tools also help forensic teams gather evidence after raids have taken place.
Software is among the most popular pirated goods
"Trading standards and law enforcement are starting to ramp up resources in this field," says Mr X. "That shows greater awareness of the impact on countries."
In recent months raids have been carried out under the banners of Operation Fairlight and Operation Site Down and Operation Fastlink. This last operation saw simultaneous raids in 11 countries and the seizure of more than 200 computers.
Efforts to educate the public about dangers are starting to help too, says Mr X.
"There's a greater number of people going online and in many respects they are new to it and are not well informed what the dangers may be," he says.
Users that buy pirated programs need to know the damage they do to the technology industry, says Mr X.
Software piracy hurts far more smaller software makers than it does large firms, he says. Many popular and useful shareware programs are found on CDs alongside the big ticket programs people typically buy the pirate disks for, he says.
Also, many of the programs found on these discs are not neutral copies. Many have Trojans, keyloggers and spyware travelling alongside the desktop programs people want.
Installing the program can leave users open to attack by the pirates and mean they inadvertently surrender personal information to identity thieves.
"It's about informing people about the consequences of their actions," he says. "The more people hear about it the more cautious they are."