CHRIS HOFFMAN @chrisbhoffman
OCTOBER 24, 2018, 6:40AM EDT
Microsoft charges $200 for a Windows 10 Professional product key. But, with a quick search online, you can find websites promising Windows 10 Pro keys for $12 or even less. That’s a huge savings—but don’t fall for it.
Why Are They So Cheap?
The websites selling cheap Windows 10 and Windows 7 keys aren’t getting legitimate retail keys straight from Microsoft.
Some of these keys just come from other countries where Windows licenses are cheaper. These are referred to as “gray market” keys. They may be legitimate, but they were sold for cheaper in other countries. For example, Windows keys were once much cheaper in China.
Other keys could have been purchased with stolen credit card numbers. A criminal acquires some credit card numbers, purchases a bunch of Windows keys online, and sells them through third-party websites at a cut rate. When the credit cards are reported as stolen and the chargebacks occur, Microsoft deactivates the keys, and those Windows installations are no longer activated—but the criminal gets away with the money people paid for them.
Some keys may be education keys intended for students but obtained fraudulently.
Other keys may be “volume license” keys, which are not supposed to be resold individually.
On really sketchy websites, you may just be purchasing a completely fake key or an already-known key that was used to pirate Windows on multiple systems that has been blocked by Microsoft. An especially bad website might even steal the credit card number you use to buy the key and use it to start the credit card fraud game anew.
But Do They Work?
Okay, okay, so these keys are sketchy. But you’re wondering: Do they work?
Well, maybe. They often do work…for a while.
We once bought a Windows 7 key for about $15 from one of these websites. We stuck it in a virtual machine, and it worked for about a year. After that, Windows started saying we “may be a victim of software piracy.” Our Windows license was no longer “genuine.”
In other words, at some point in that year, the key we purchased was flagged as bad by Microsoft. It was probably purchased with a stolen credit card number, and it was eventually blacklisted on Microsoft’s servers. So it stopped working, and we’d have to buy a new key.
That’s just one anecdote, but it’s our experience. Your key may never work in the first place, it may work for a month, or it may never be blacklisted at all. It all depends on where the key originally came from, and you’ll never know where that was.
These Keys Aren’t Legitimate