Subscription snafu angers Norton users

It's a rare company that turns away customers, but Symantec's subscription renewal service for Norton AntiVirus appears to be doing just that to some users--albeit unintentionally.

"It seems that Symantec no longer needs customers or their money," says Bob Hampel, of San Antonio, Texas. "I've been trying for three days now to give them money for a subscription update, but I can't give it away."

Worse, some customers charge that Symantec is nixing their attempts to renew virus definition subscriptions in order to force them to buy a new, complete copy of the software instead.

Symantec executives say they're neither turning away customers nor forcing them to upgrade. They cite a surge in subscriptions and a resulting network upgrade as the source of the problems--and say the situation will be corrected soon.

Subscription Friction

Antivirus software requires regular updates of virus definition to work correctly; major vendors like Symantec generally include a year of upgrades via the Internet. After that, Symantec charges owners of the full version of its software $10 for each additional year (users of bundled trial-versions of the software pay $20 for each additional year).

When Symantec raised the yearly rate from $4 to its current level, some long-time users cried foul.But now a growing number of customers who are willing to pay to renew their subscription are crying foul, too. Some paid, only to experience truncated subscriptions. Others can't seem to renew at all, either through Symantec's Web site or through the company's tech support, prompting some of them to charge that the company is trying to strong-arm them into paying for a software upgrade.

The real cause of the problems, says a Symantec executive, is far less insidious: success.

Network Traffic Jam

In the last quarter of 2001, Norton Antivirus subscribers grew 57 percent over the previous quarter, says Lyn Tran, product manager for client and consumer product delivery. That's a 280 percent jump from the same quarter the year before, she says.

With its subscriber base growing fast, Symantec has been updating its network infrastructure for the past six months--and expects to be done in March, she says. The downside: the work causes problems for some users trying to renew their subscriptions.

The company has tried to stagger network downtime so the problem doesn't repeatedly affect the same customers, she says. But she admits there's a chance that customers may encounter repeated problems.

And is Symantec really trying to force customers to upgrade their software? That just doesn't fly, Tran says.

"Customer retention is very important to us," she says. "We've been successful because of our loyal customer base. If they are having problems we want to resolve that. That is part of the reason we're upgrading the infrastructure."

One Customer Lost

After expiration of the trial subscription to Norton AntiVirus, bundled with his new Dell desktop, Bernie P. Davis of Scottsdale, Arizona decided it was worth the $20 fee to renew his subscription for a year. A few months after successfully completing his one-year renewal application, however, he noticed that he had just 54 days worth of downloads remaining.

After repeated visits to the Web site and numerous e-mails and phone calls to Symantec's customer service, Davis says, support staffers promised to fix the subscription error and to send the patches needed to correct software problems on his end.

But he never got the software patches, despite receiving repeated e-mail apologies. Davis says Symantec ultimately failed to solve his problems. And he never got a promised refund.

His solution: "I unistalled Norton and installed McAfee antivirus [software]," he says.

Symantec's Tran says its difficult to say exactly what caused Davis's problems. She suggests that he may have needed to download the free application upgrades before trying to renew his subscription.

Even if your subscription ends, you can still download the latest patches, Tran explains. When you run LiveUpdate to get those patches, it tells you that the virus definitions have expired. But you can request only the program patches, she says. LiveUpdate will deliver the latest version of the program. Then, the next time you run LiveUpdate, you should be able to renew your subscription.

Short Lifespan

Though you can update older software so it will run current virus definitions, Tran notes, Symantec supports only the latest two releases of Norton Antivirus: 2001 (version 7) and 2002 (version 8). This policy angers some customers who resist buying a new product every few years, but Tran says it is necessary to keep up with virus writers.

"We have within our products the core engines for virus detection and protection. Our technology is based on the most current engine to protect against the latest threats," she says.

Older Norton AntiVirus programs still work, she says. For example, Norton AntiVirus 2000 still works if you have a valid subscription and you can download new definitions. But because it contains an older virus engine, it can't protect the same way and against the same types of threats, she says.

Rich Knapp of Altus, Oklahoma, says that he likes Norton Antivirus 2002 but he didn't plan to upgrade the 2001 release he purchased last February so soon. Nevertheless, after repeated problems while trying to renew his subscription, he decided to buy the new version. He's a longtime user and credits Norton AntiVirus with protecting his PC from several viruses, but he says his problems make him suspicious of Symantec.

"If it was an honest problem, that's one thing. But if they slipped programming code that made this thing do it on its own, that would make me upset," he says.

Tran insists that Symantec isn't playing games. In addition to seeking help online, frustrated customers can contact technical support by e-mail or phone, she says.

That's what Bob Hampel--the user who felt as though Symantec was spurning his money--finally did. After repeated failed attempts to update his subscription, and after considering switching to a competitor, he finally reached a Symantec customer service person who fixed his problem and overcame his frustration.

"Norton made me whole by giving me the year's subscription for free," he says.

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Tom Mainelli

PC World
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