Low-price listings for expensive software like Microsoft Office or Adobe Creative Suite are usually too good to be true—especially on secondary markets like Craigslist or eBay. Let’s take a look at some of the ways scammers try to rip you off.

You Might Be Getting an OEM Licensed Product

Okay, so this one isn’t so much a scam as it is something to watch for.

OEM stands for “Original Equipment Manufacturer.” Sometimes, this term is used to refer to the brand of a manufacturer—for example, the “OEM” for a Dell computer as a whole is, well, Dell. But more often it refers to the original supplier of products or parts to someone who resells them. So if your Dell computer has an Intel motherboard, Intel is the OEM for that specific part.=

The reason this is important is because software, especially Windows and Office packages from Microsoft, are often sold with an “OEM license.” This gives manufacturers like Dell the right to install that copy of the software on one machine, and only one machine. These licenses are specifically meant for use on a single computer, by a single user who buys that computer through retail channels.

OEM licenses are sold at a heavy discount, often in batches of thousands or more, but they can only be used once. Unlike conventional copies of Windows or Office, an OEM copy is bound to the hardware upon which it was originally installed and can’t be transferred, even with a valid license code.

OEM licenses often pop up on secondary markets. Microsoft used to sell them directly to consumers, in fact, but doesn’t for Windows 10—the only place to buy these discounted copies is on secondary retail markets like eBay, Amazon, and Newegg. You can buy and activate the software normally, and you might save a few bucks while doing so, but remember the limitations:

  • Microsoft OEM licenses can’t be used to upgrade from an older version of Windows, only for a clean install
  • OEM licenses are bound to one computer, and cannot be transferred to another for upgrades or new purchases
  • OEM software doesn’t get support directly from Microsoft, because it’s intended to be used by manufacturers who supply support along with the hardware

Between these limitations and the extra hassle of buying from a third party, it’s typically not worth the small amount of money you’ll save.

You also need to be especially careful when buying OEM licensed software from used marketplaces or marketplaces without stellar reputations. Sometimes, people will sell OEM licensed software that has already been used on other hardware. Sometimes, they’ll even sell this software as though it were new, or was not OEM software, but a regular license. If you buy used OEM software, you run the risk of not being able to install it on your system at all.

You Might Be Getting Volume or Enterprise Licensed Products

When making a deal to supply software to a company that might have hundreds or thousands of users, software makers offer a unique license designed especially for those situations. This allows the software seller to offer discounts for volume sales, and lets the IT folks at the company install software quickly and efficiently on large amounts of PCs. The specific terms of the license vary by product, but typically it’s not allowed for the software to be used by anyone outside the company.

Sometimes, however, unscrupulous employees might try to sell unused portions of the volume license as the real deal.

Here’s an example. Say a company buys a database tool with a volume license. They get a single authorization code, and are allowed to install the software on up to 100 computers. Our bad employee knows that the tool is only being used on 80 computers. They then sell the remaining 20 copies at far below market value, sending each buyer the same code used by their company. The buyers use the code, not realizing it isn’t unique, and activate the software on their own computers.

This is a violation of the company’s contract, and also grounds for legal copyright violation in most countries. If the seller is caught they could face jail time, and if the company realizes it’s run out of licensed machines before it should have, they might reset the license, at which point the 20 people who used their activation code lose access to the software.

So, how do you avoid this type of scam? First, as always, remain skeptical of deals that appear just too good. Also, be wary of any purchase where you only receive an activation code instead of physical installation materials.

You Might Be Getting Student Licensed Products

Software makers like Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe allow college students to buy legitimate copies of their software at steep discounts, typically through their university bookstore or directly on the web. Plenty of college courses require specific software for schoolwork, and software makers know that if they can get students acclimated to their products while they’re learning, they’re much more likely to buy full-priced copies for work after they graduate.

Unfortunately, this creates an opportunity for swindlers. Here’s how that goes.

A reseller buys a physical copy of the software (or just an activation code with a retail box) at a college bookstore, paying the discounted student price. Let’s say that they bought the student edition of Final Cut Pro X for $200. They then list the software online at a price between the student price and the retail price, never mentioning that it’s a student edition. The buyer feels like they’re getting a good deal, and the seller pockets the profit.

The problem comes when the buyer tries to activate the software, and gets rejected because they don’t have an email account from a participating school, or some other method of proving that they’re an active student. The software isn’t illegal per se, though the sale is certainly fraudulent. But the buyer is still left paying for something they can’t actually use.

Note that if you do happen to be a student, there’s nothing wrong with buying software on a student license. In fact it’s a great perk, and can help make up for some of that pricey tuition. Just be aware that their are some restrictions—the most common being that you’re not allowed to use student licensed software commercially.

You Might Be Getting Pirated Software

RELATED: I Got Scammed by a Counterfeiter on Amazon. Here's How You Can Avoid Them

In terms of software reselling, pirates are the equivalent of that guy offering to sell you a “genuine Romex watch” for a hundred bucks. We’re talking about counterfeit sellers on Amazon and eBay, as well as other placed. Typically, they’ll download an illegal copy of some software for free, find a “crack” app that can activate the software with a fake license, and then stick both of them on a burned CD or a simple USB drive to sell to suckers online.

These pirated copies can be sold for almost nothing—after all, they were free to acquire. Luckily, that makes them easy to spot. If you see someone selling expensive, current software on a secondary market for a 95% discount, it’s almost certainly pirated. Trying to use it an act of copyright violation (yes, even if you paid for it).

Image source: Amazon, Adobe, Apple, eBay

Profile Photo for Michael Crider Michael Crider
Michael Crider is a veteran technology journalist with a decade of experience. He spent five years writing for Android Police and his work has appeared on Digital Trends and Lifehacker. He’s covered industry events like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and Mobile World Congress in person.
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