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What to do if you buy illegal software

After the report of buying illegal Microsoft Office via Amazon (and Amazon’s initially poor response) here’s what to do if you’ve bought an illegal, pirated or at least non-working Office Product Key.

Credit Card as separate transaction

Whenever possible, pay by credit card.  The MS Office purchase should be a separate purchase not bundled with other products on the same credit card transaction.  That’s important if you get to the last resort.

Product Key asap

Use Product Key as soon as possible after it arrives.  It’s harder to complain if weeks or months have passed since purchase.

Hopefully the Product Key is accepted.  Either Microsoft Office is activated or another year is added to your Office 365 plan.

If your Product Key won’t work

If the product won’t activate properly it could be for various reasons, not necessarily a pirated Product Key.   Make a note of the error message from product activation – ideally take a screen shot of the error message/s.

Start taking notes

This is where you start making careful notes about what you do and when.  In a Word document, OneNote, Evernote or whatever.

Having a good record of events helps a lot when dealing with the various companies involved.  It makes you seem more authoritative and certain when you can give clear and direct answers.  It gives support staff less excuse to ‘put you off’ if you can tell them exactly what they need to know.

Call Microsoft Support.

The activation process doesn’t explain on the screen why the software won’t be licensed.  MS Support should be able to figure out what the activation problem is and give you some information about why it won’t work.

  • Be polite. The MS Support front line staff are often on low-wages and have very little discretion beyond the call centre scripts they are given.
    • In some difficult situations, remember that the staffer might be as frustrated with their inability to help, as much as you’re frustrated by the lack of help!
  • Be at your computer. It might not be an invalid key issue and Support might ask you to try some other installation methods to get around the problem.
  • They should be able to tell you if the product key is invalid and probably that it’s been pirated but they’ll say no more than that.
    • Microsoft will not bypass an illegal Product Key and let you activate the software.
  • Make a note of the exact wording MS Support uses to explain the Product Key problem. That phrase will have a specific meaning inside Microsoft and can make a difference later.
  • Get a reference/ticket number. Each call to Microsoft Support gets its own issue or ticket number.  Write down that reference number plus date/time and details of your call.
    • Having that MS Support reference and the exact phrase/reason for the non-working Product Key should help later.

Contact the Seller

Now you can contact the merchant who sold you the Office with non-working Product Key.

If it’s an Ebay or Amazon merchant, try to contact the merchant in a way that is traceable via that company.  Look on their site for a ‘contact seller’ link.

Whenever possible, contact via email or online chat.  That gives you a record of what was said (or not) by both sides.

Tell them that Microsoft declared the Product Key ‘invalid’ but use the exact phrase that MS Support told you.  Explain that you have opened a Microsoft Support ticket to report the non-working Product Key and who you bought the product from.

Ask for a working replacement to be sent without delay.  Give a reasonable deadline for their reply (say 5 working days).

If there’s no reply after that time … try again with a second deadline.

Contact the middle-man Amazon or Ebay

If the response from the seller isn’t satisfactory and you bought via a middle-man like Amazon or Ebay, it’s time to contact them.

Set out the problem and your efforts to contact the seller.  This is where having details of what Microsoft said and seller has done come in useful.

Maybe Amazon Support will try to avoid any responsibility, as they did in a recently publicized case.  Remind them that you’ve already contacted the merchant and that you have confirmation from Microsoft that the Product Key is illegal.

If still having trouble, quote back at Amazon, Amazon’s own public statement about counterfeit software  “we will continue to fight and innovate on to protect customers, brands, and sellers“.

This isn’t a mere warranty dispute or disagreement about a product, you’re reporting a crime … theft.  It’s a serious matter.

Credit Card Refund

If all else fails, contact your bank or card issuer and ask for a ‘chargeback’ or refund on the credit card transaction.  The exact details of your entitlement to a chargeback depend on local law and credit card contract but in broad terms you can ask for a chargeback on any full credit card transaction.

A chargeback is your last resort after giving the seller a chance to make good.  It only applies to a whole transaction, you can’t ask for a partial chargeback (say $350 out of a $500 transaction).  That’s why we earlier suggested you buy MS Office as a separate transaction.  Credit card chargebacks are a slow process that can take months to complete.

You have a strong case for a chargeback when armed with details of your dealings with Microsoft, the merchant and perhaps middle-man.


A lot of this is standard consumer rights advice which we’ve made specific to Microsoft Product Key problems.

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