The online world is full of incredible resources that often seem too good to be true. If someone around the turn of the millennium had been able to get a glimpse into the future, they’d have been astonished by everything that we can now achieve — and how cheaply we can do it.
Take the ubiquitous Google Docs suite, for instance: it provides most of the functionality that was classically provided by Microsoft Office and doesn’t cost you anything for basic personal use.
Sometimes, though, things are too good to be true.
While the internet is a lot safer than it used to be, its sheer scale ensures that fraudulent schemes can thrive if deployed carefully, and that certainly has relevance when talking about free software.
In this post, we’re going to run through how you can tell the difference between legitimate free software and the kind that’s a scam.
What does good free software really mean?
They say that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and the point is that even something that comes at no monetary cost will still collect some kind of value in return.
That isn’t inherently a problem. Take something like Gmail, for instance: it’s a great email system that you can use for free, but it returns value to Google by getting you hooked into the Google ecosystem and making you more likely to do things like buy Android devices and pay for business features.
Worthwhile free software is straightforward about anything the developer expects (or desires) in return for its use.
The kind of free software that should be avoided is fundamentally deceptive, with the developer knowing that you won’t be interested in the actual value exchange and attempting to trick you into going for it by misrepresenting how it works.
Taking sensible precautions online
To be clear, regardless of how good you get at filtering out the scammy software, you should always take sensible precautions when you’re using the internet.
That means covering all the technical basics: running antivirus software, keeping your computer updated, even using a proxy server to cover your IP address when you’re worried about having your activity tracked.
It also means being sensible in general: not giving out your personal information when it isn’t warranted, choosing complex passwords (and changing them semi-regularly), and staying away from any websites that are clearly riddled with malware — most of them are easy to spot, after all. The more careful you are, the safer you’ll be.
Red flags that you should be looking for
When you’re considering free software, there are certain red flags that should give you pause and make you check and double-check what you’re doing before you proceed:
- Minimal information. Legitimate software (even if it’s free) is typically presented with a lot of information about what it can and can’t This is because legitimate developers care about how their work is viewed, regardless of what it means for them financially. If you find yourself on a software page that barely tells you anything about the details of the tool (aside from some broad claim about what it can do), it’s probably fraudulent.
- Inconsistent claims. On one part of the page it says the tool will find and remove all infections on your machine in ten minutes, but on another part of the page it says it will do it in five Performance-based claims can be legitimate, but inconsistency (even if not technically contradictory) will indicate that the claims were made up on the spot to encourage downloads.
- Low-quality pages. Blurry low-resolution visuals, bizarre formatting, typos (just as broken English is a big red flag on eBay, it’s a red flag here) … Presentation really matters, and while a quality free tool won’t always have a spectacular page to go with it, everything will at least be competent. If you spot more than one or two typos, get out.
- Trying too hard. While it’s true that developers of free tools want you to use them (if only to build up their credibility), they don’t need to try very hard if those tools are actually worthwhile. When you see a page that tells you to download “NOW!” and seems utterly desperate for you to proceed, it’s a sign that you’re being duped.
Leaning on social proof
So what should you do if you spot one or more flags but you’re not absolutely sure? Well, the best thing to do is turn to social proof.
Google the tool until you find some legitimate reviews. If you can’t find any, look up the developer to find out what else they’ve made and how that has been received. If someone is known for making good freeware, then maybe you can trust them.
And if you can’t find anything for the developer either yet you still managed to find the tool in the first place, then either it’s utterly unique or it’s a scam boosted through solid SEO work.
When in doubt, stay away. The internet is so packed with reliable free tools that there’s really no sense in risking the use of something that might be fraudulent.