Microsoft Closes Activation Loophole

Microsoft is closing a loophole that enabled unscrupulous resellers to use Windows XP product keys that were stolen from large OEMs. The result: customers who purchase Windows on a new PC may not be able to reinstall their operating system without first calling Microsoft.

The problem lies in the Certificate of Authenticity (COA) labels on PCs, which often contain unused unique product keys because OEMs preinstall Windows and bypass product activation.

These keys could easily be copied and sold by a smaller computer dealer complete with a counterfeit COA. Because the product key was never actually used by an end-user, a customer would have no trouble activating Windows via the Internet and never know the difference.

But Microsoft plans to change all this. Starting February 28, Microsoft will indefinitely begin to disable Internet product activation on OEM keys used by the top 20 worldwide PC makers.

If a customer attempts to activate Windows XP with an OEM key from a COA, they will be directed to call customer support specialists to obtain an override code - provided they can prove that their copy is legitimate by answering a series of questions.

Jupiter Research senior analyst Joe Wilcox said the change shouldn't affect many PC buyers. "Seeing as how the typical OEM would normally preactivate Windows XP, most legitimate users shouldn't have much need to go through the activation process," noted Wilcox.

"But it would be possible for someone to lift a COA number from, say, a PC on display at a local store and activate a OEM copy of Windows on another computer. Similarly, a smaller dealer could reuse the same key on multiple PCs of the same configuration," added Wilcox.

Microsoft expects to expand the Internet product activation ban to all pre-activated Windows PCs in the next quarter.

Other recent actions that Microsoft has taken against piracy include the Windows Genuine Advantage program, in which Windows users must verify their license in order to access Windows Update and the Microsoft Download Center. Incentives, such as special downloads and discounts on Microsoft products, are offered to users with legitimate licenses. Even non-legit users, however, will continue to receive critical updates to Windows.

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