By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com

The Federal Trade Commission on Thursday took aim at annoying pop-up advertising, accusing a California advertising company of digital-age extortion. D Squared Solutions allegedly hijacked Internet users’ computers by bombarding them with Windows Messenger pop-up ads — as frequently as every 10 minutes. The ads hawked $30 software that promised only to stop future pop-ups from the company.

“Pop-up advertising is a fact of life,” said Howard Beales, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But one company has taken pop-ups beyond annoyance.” In announcing action against San Diego-based D Squared, the agency also urged consumers to disable a feature of Windows — the one exploited by D Squared — which makes them more vulnerable to the annoying advertisements.

To consumers, Windows Messenger Service works just like the familiar Instant Messenger software, though it was actually built into Windows by Microsoft for use by network administrators in corporate networks to send quick bulletins to users. (MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

According to the FTC, D-Squared tapped into this bulletin feature to barrage consumers with pop-up advertisements hawking their software — which promised only to stop the pop-up ads. That, Beales said, was extortion.

The FTC announced Thursday it had sued the company and obtained a temporary restraining order that effectively shuts down the company’s pop-up advertising business.

“Advertising that says only ‘I’ll stop advertising if you pay me’ is an easy case,” he said.

Beales also urged consumers to protect themselves against this type of pop-up advertisement by turning off Windows Messenger Service, which which few consumers use. Instructions on how to do so appear at the bottom of this story.

Messenger Service pop-ups are particularly pesky because they can appear even if a consumers isn’t surfing the Web or reading e-mail — only a live Internet connection is required, meaning most broadband users can be hit with Messenger Service pop-ups at any time.

Turning off the service won’t disable all pop-ups; browser-based pop-up advertisements, for example, will still work.

D Squared operated a handful of Web sites devoted to advertising their software, including Blockmessenger.com, Endads.com, SaveYourPrivacy.com. and Fightmessenger.com.

D Squared did not immediately return e-mails sent to its San Diego office. The telephone number listed on the domain registration information for the company’s Web site wasn’t operational.

The company made “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in the alleged scam, Beales said. The firm also sold software to third parties enabling them to send out automated pop-up advertising, according to the complaint. On its Web site, the firm said the software could beam 135,000 pop-up ads at consumers every hour, and claimed to have a database of over two billion Internet addresses, according to the FTC. At least one other firm was using the software, Beales said.

At the Federal Trade Commission’s request, a U.S. District Court in Maryland has issued a temporary restraining order barring D Squared from sending out Windows Messenger pop-up ads or selling its software to other firms.

Part of the reason Windows Messenger pop-ups caught the attention of the FTC is that one of the agency’s commissioners received one of the advertisements at home, Beales said. But the FTC also received numerous complaints from consumers.

Karen McKechnie of Annandale, Va., a consumer who complained to the FTC about D Squared software, said the pop-up messages covered every inch of her computer screen.

“People sending messages are infringing on my rights and everyone else’s rights to use their computer,” she said.

In October, Microsoft released a security patch for a flaw in Windows Messenger that allows computer hackers to take control of a Windows computer remotely. But the firm now says Windows Messenger probably isn’t necessary for home users, and future versions of its Windows software will come with the service turned off.

America Online spokesman Andrew Weinstein said his company began disabling Windows Messenger for AOL users automatically last month, “so most AOL members are already protected.” More than 15 million users have had the service shut off by AOL, he said.

Microsoft made news earlier this week when it announced creation of a $5 million fund to help authorities catch computer hackers and virus writers. As much as $250,000 will be given as a reward to anyone helping catch those responsible for writing the MSBlaster and SoBig computer worms, which wreaked havoc on the Internet this summer.

Beales recommends that current Windows users manually shut the service off to protect themselves from unwanted pop-ups.

To disable Messenger:

  1. Click Start, and then click Control Panel (or point to Settings, and then click Control Panel).
  2. Double-click Administrative Tools.
  3. Double-click Services.
  4. Double-click Messenger.
  5. In the Startup type list, click Disabled. Click
  6. Stop, and then click OK.

Further instructions are available from Microsoft at its Web site.

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