Worried you might be using a pirated copy of Windows 10? If you bought your copy of Windows directly from Microsoft or from a reputable retailer, you’re probably fine, but software piracy is still a problem.
Using an unauthorized version of Windows not only means that you haven’t paid Microsoft their dues, it could also mean that your copy of Windows has been compromised with spyware or other malware.
Do you even have a key?
Windows 10 can be legitimately activated in two different ways. A product key is probably the one everyone is most familiar with, but Windows can also be activated with a digital license associated with your Microsoft account.
On systems activated with a Microsoft account, there is no key as such. When you try to check it, all you get is a message that says “Windows is activated with a digital license associated with your Microsoft account.”
Do you need a key?
Microsoft does things a little differently with Windows 10. When you install the operating system, you don’t need a product key to complete the process. You can simply choose to skip the code and continue.
Once installed, you will have full access to Windows 10. The only functionality taken out of Windows 10 if it is not activated is personalization options and a small piece of text in the background indicating that Windows is not activated. Windows will still download and install updates and work as usual.
So if you’re in a rush to get your hands on a key because you think your computer is going to stop working or you’re not getting any security patches, don’t worry. You can save up for a Windows license and buy it when you’re ready.
If you want to use Windows 10 on a secondary computer or in a virtual machine where you don’t care about the minor restrictions imposed by not activating it, you may never have to worry. Microsoft seems cool with it, so until their stance changes, you may not have to pay money for a Windows key.
Why would your copy be cracked?
Obviously, if you had cracked your copy of Windows yourself, you wouldn’t be reading this article. So why would your copy be cracked unbeknownst to you?
The short answer is that trading counterfeit software is a lot of money. You may have bought a cheap copy of Windows 10 from a third-party vendor that basically sells cracked versions of the operating system. If your computer came preloaded with Windows 10, the System Builder may be pushing its profits by disabling Microsoft and loading compromised Windows copies onto their systems.
It doesn’t really matter how your copy of Windows was cracked, it’s about how you can detect if your product key is fake or not.
How is Windows cracked?
The usual way to activate a copy of Windows is to pay for a license or enter the key provided. Windows then verifies your right to use that copy with Microsoft’s servers. From then on, you won’t have to worry about it again until the next time you need to reinstall Windows.
Hackers devising ways to circumvent that built-in copy protection have created software known as an “activator”. These little apps fool Windows into thinking it has received Microsoft’s stamp of approval.
For the average user, there are no easily recognizable signs that something is wrong. If you check the activation status of Windows, it will simply say that it is activated. Fortunately, there is a way to check for an activator using the command line.
Check if you are using an activator
To see if your copy of Windows has been activated with an activator, do the following:
- press the Windows button and R together. This opens the Run dialog box.
- Type slmgr.vbs /dli and press OKAY.
- A license information dialog box appears.
If you see a box like this that only shows “partial product key” and “license status” entries, your copy of Windows is genuine. If you see “Activation Expiration” or “Refresh Interval” instead, your Windows installation was probably cracked with an activator hack.
Use a Product ID Checker
An easy way to check if your product key is genuine is to use a product key checker. These programs are not made by Microsoft and you should always use a virus scanner to check them before running such an application.
While there are a few choices, two of the most popular are the Microsoft PID Checker (not by Microsoft!) and the Ultimate PID Checker† In general, PID applications are portable. That means you don’t need to install them and can easily run them from a flash drive or other storage location.
Simply enter your product key and the program will tell you whether it is a real key or not. Remember, this software only validates the key, it doesn’t tell you if you’re running a cracked version of Windows or not!
Ask Microsoft if the key is real
The most surefire way to find out if your license key is genuine is to go to the source. No, not that of the matrix, we are talking about Microsoft. You can contact a Microsoft customer service representative and tell them that you suspect that your copy of Windows is not genuine and that a counterfeit key has been sold to you.
They can verify this for you and if it turns out it is indeed a fake key, grab it from there. Unfortunately you are not entitled to a real key even if you have been scammed. So you’re out of luck in that regard.
What to do if your product key is fake?
So if it turns out that you got a fake copy of Windows, what can you do? As we just mentioned, Microsoft has a piracy reporting facilityso you should at least let them know if anyone is running a rogue business selling fake copies of their software.
As for your system, the first thing you need to do is: reinstall a clean copy of Windows 10† It is possible to easily change the cracked installation to a legitimate key installation purchased from a reputable retailer. However, we would not trust that the cracked copy has not been further tampered with. If possible, start with a clean slate.
Unfortunately, you’ll need to shell out even more money to do the right thing, but as we said at the beginning of this article, you can continue with an unactivated copy of Windows for as long as you need, until you’ve got the cash together.
If you don’t feel like spending more money and don’t mind doing something other than Windows, you can also use this as a chance to try out Linux. For most desktop users, Ubuntu Linux is a good place to start and you’ll find plenty of information on our sites to get you started.