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Posted on August 26th, 2011 at 4:13 PM EDT
During the MacDefender outbreak earlier this summer, there were many programs with similar names that were confused with variants of that malware. One of those programs was MacKeeper. Despite the fact that this software is not technically malware, though, Mac users should be alerted that it is not quite legitimate, either.
As a former shareware developer, I do not throw such an accusation around lightly. My main product at one point was a program that was designed to force the user to take periodic breaks, as a means for assisting with the prevention of repetitive stress injuries. Many of those who did not suffer from such problems did not understand the point of the software, and I got a lot of e-mail ridiculing my software as stupid. In part because of this, I understand that software is not worthless just because I don’t find it useful.
That said, MacKeeper does not fall into the same category of misunderstood software. I certainly do not find MacKeeper at all appealing. But that’s not why I recommend that all Mac users avoid it. My reasons for saying that are twofold.
First, the company that makes MacKeeper (ZeoBIT LLC) has demonstrated some extremely unethical behavior. MacKeeper is frequently advertised using pop-up (or pop-under) windows, on a variety of web sites, that seem to be able to get past Safari’s pop-up blocking feature. Due to the extreme unpopularity of such advertising techniques, no reputable companies are currently using pop-ups. This is not particularly conclusive evidence of their lack of ethics, as it could simply be due to ignorance. (That’s not particularly believable, given the sophistication of their web site.)
ZeoBIT has also, however, done something that shows conclusively that they have no ethics. One of the features of MacKeeper is anti-virus protection. There is a free, and quite excellent, anti-virus program for the Mac called ClamXav. The ClamXav web site is clamxav.com. ZeoBIT has purchased a very similar domain – clamxav.org – and has posted a “review” of ClamXav there.
The page that ZeoBIT has posted on that site appears to be a ClamXav review. In the past, at the end of that review, there was a big green “Download” button that actually redirected the user to the MacKeeper web site. After a number of people (including me) criticized them for that in a public forum, they added an itty-bitty little link below the Download button that was nearly unreadable. That link read something like “Download ClamXav” and pointed to the real ClamXav site, but the Download button still redirected to the MacKeeper site.
This has been a continuing point of contention, with many people posting scathing messages about ZeoBIT in many public places. At this point, all mention of MacKeeper (including the Download button) has been removed from that site. However, the content is otherwise still exactly the same. Further, while that site was once plainly registered to ZeoBIT, its ownership is now hidden behind a domain name anonymizing service, WhoisGuard. Although I admit I have no proof that the site is currently registered to ZeoBIT, the content of the site has not changed (other than removal of mention of MacKeeper) since it was last shown to be registered to them.
The purpose of the clamxav.org site was fairly obvious in its previous incarnations. The goal was plainly to trick people looking for ClamXav into downloading MacKeeper. However, with the Download button gone, why would ZeoBIT want to pay for hosting a site that seems to promote a competing product, and why would they want to hide their involvement? I cannot think of any good reason. Somehow, it feels a bit sinister now, rather than just dishonest. There is a trick that has been used by scammers and malware authors, involving an apparently legitimate site that ends up linked to by other sites. This also results in a higher ranking on search engines, linking the site inappropriately with a competitor’s product. Once the site becomes well-publicized, the content is switched for something less benign. I obviously don’t know that this is ZeoBIT’s intent, but that is the only possibility that makes any sense to me.
Addendum (2/22/2012): Since I wrote this, it has come to my attention that MacKeeper also leaves bits behind when you remove it using their provided uninstaller. Worse, those bits then display pop-ups periodically to try to convince you to reinstall MacKeeper. Someone mentioned something about that in one of the comments here some time ago, but since then I have heard it from many sources. This is simply inexcusable behavior.
Addendum (6/7/2012): I have gotten a few reports recently that MacKeeper’s uninstaller may no longer be leaving pieces behind. But, because I have also had reports that the uninstaller behaves differently in the demo version than the full version, I have no way to test this. I do not intend to purchase MacKeeper just to test that. In any case, even if these rumors are true and MacKeeper is more well-behaved now, there’s enough history of dishonest and fraudulent behavior from the company to recommend against it.
If being unable to trust the company isn’t enough reason to avoid its software, consider my second reason to steer clear. There is a lot of talk online about problems caused by MacKeeper. People claim that it slows their machines down, makes them unstable and causes a lot of strange pop-up ads to start appearing. While I don’t ordinarily put much stock in complaints like these posted in online forums, in this case, there’s little reason to take the risk. You don’t need much of what MacKeeper provides, and what features it has that you might need can be better achieved by other free or inexpensive software. Consider each feature provided by MacKeeper:
|Anti-virus||You probably don’t really need anti-virus software on your Mac. (See my Mac Virus Guide.) However, if you do want AV software, MacKeeper really stinks at that job. See Mac anti-virus detection rates.|
|Anti-theft||This provides features to help you track your Mac in the event it is stolen. A better option would be to use the free, open-source and well-reviewed Prey. In addition, when Apple makes iCloud public this fall, it will, in conjunction with Mac OS X 10.7 (aka Lion), offer similar features.|
|Encryption||There are a variety of ways to encrypt documents without spending any money. You could use the Mac’s built-in FileVault technology. You could create an encrypted disk image with Disk Utility and store only your sensitive data in there. (That’s the solution I use.) Or you could zip up files in encrypted .zip files using the command line. There are many other possibilities outlined in Joe Kissell’s An Introduction to File Encryption in Mac OS X.|
|Undelete||Undelete functionality is better avoided whenever possible by ensuring that you have a good set of backups. With good backups, you will never need to try to recover deleted files using MacKeeper’s Undelete feature. And if you ever do need such functionality, you’d be better off using a product from someone who specialized in data recovery. Three such options are Data Rescue, File Salvage and Stellar Phoenix.|
|Backup||There are many other excellent, and free, backup programs! Every Mac since Mac OS X 10.5 (aka Leopard) has included built-in backup software, called Time Machine. If Time Machine is not something you want to use, or if you want to create secondary backups with another program (a very good idea), you can use a free tool like Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper. If none of these suit you, there are many other options. See the online appendices for Joe Kissell’s Take Control of Mac OS X Backups.|
|Shredder||Seriously? I’m not sure why anyone would pay for this feature when they could just use Secure Empty Trash in the Finder. I can only guess they’d pay for it because they’re not aware they’ve already got it as a built-in feature of Mac OS X.|
|Fast Cleanup||Ahh, the old cache cleaning scam… Some people just want to sell “cleaning” software to people who have switched from Windows, where such things actually have a use. Macs don’t need cleaning like that. Clearing your caches can be beneficial only ifyou are having cache-related problems. If you are not, it actually harms your system’s performance. (Caches are there to keep things running fast!)If you do need to do some cache troubleshooting, you can clear your caches with free software rather than paying for it. Try OnyX, for example.|
|Disk Usage||There are several good, free programs that can show you in much greater detail what’s taking up space on your hard drive. OmniDiskSweeper and GrandPerspective are two of them. And if you want a simpler view and happen to be using Mac OS X 10.7 (aka Lion), just go to Apple -> About This Mac, click More Info and then click the Storage tab.|
|Duplicates Finder||Just go get a free duplicate finder, like dupeGuru. (But consider giving a donation, as a means of supporting further development of the software, if it works well for you.)|
|Files Finder||Seriously? Between the built-in Spotlight and the free EasyFind, why do you need another search tool?|
|Wise Uninstaller||For the most part, uninstallers are not needed on a Mac. Many apps are simply dragged into the Applications folder to install them, and only need to be dragged to the trash to delete them. Those that require installers will usually also provide their own uninstallers. In any event, “universal” uninstallers that claim to be able to remove all traces of an app seldom work as advertised. They almost always leave bits behind. If you want to remove an app and aren’t sure how, just Google “Mac uninstall appname” and you should get some answers. However, if you really want such an uninstaller, try AppZapper ($12.95).|
|UpdateTracker||Most software these days has an option to allow it to check for updates periodically. And any software obtained through the Mac App Store in Mac OS X 10.6 or 10.7 (aka Snow Leopard and Lion) will be kept updated for you by the App Store at no cost. Ultimately, a single update manager like this one isn’t a winner, even if it were produced by a respectable company, so that other developers would be interested in informing them of updates.|
|Login Items||Okay, they’ve got to be joking on this one. Why on Earth do you need a Login Items manager? One is already provided by the system, in System Preferences -> Accounts (or System Preferences -> Users & Groups in Lion).|
|Default Apps||Another “Are you kidding me?” moment. To change the default app for opening a file, select it in the Finder and choose File -> Get Info. Change the Open With setting. If you want to change it to open all files of the same type with an app, rather than just changing the setting for that one file, click the Change All button. There is absolutely no need to spend money on something to manage this! The Login Items and Default Apps features sound like padding, added just to make MacKeeper seem more feature-rich.|
|Geek On Demand||I admit I have no experience with the MacKeeper techs. However, I’m curious how they justify convincing people to spend money on subscription-based tech support from a company with no documented expertise in general Mac tech support. I’d go straight to Apple’s tech support first, if I needed it, for a simple one-time fee, rather than paying some guys who I don’t really trust to help me out. Those who need very frequent assistance probably should find a local Apple Store or other tech shop that can help them.|
As you can see, the features that MacKeeper make it seem impressive, but they’re either not useful or not worth the cost. Rather than installing a bulky, feature-bloated piece of software from a company with no morals, use the table above to get the things done that you actually need to do at a fraction of the cost.