Microsoft has launched an anti-piracy initiative aimed at encouraging people who suspect they have counterfeit software to send it to Microsoft for examination.

Where customers have been genuinely misled the software giant is promising to consider replacing the counterfeit software with a genuine product.

The initiative is targeting the growing number of high-quality counterfeit operations, which sell illegal software to innocent customers through seemingly legitimate outlets, rather than obvious bootlegging.

“If you buy a gold CD on a market stall, don’t expect Microsoft to replace it with genuine product, you know it’s illegal,” said Julia Philpott, Microsoft’s anti-piracy manager.

To take advantage of the service, customers need to send the product, proof of purchase and a signed statement of witness (available from or by calling 0800 013 2222) to Microsoft’s Product ID team.

The documentation will be used to trace counterfeit products to source and used in the course of prosecution.

Philpott said the team will respond within two working days as to whether the product is counterfeit or genuine and whether it will be replaced.

The service is limited to one copy per person or organisation, and the product has to have been bought in the last six months.

According to anti-piracy organisation, the Business Software Alliance, an average of 26 percent software packages sold in the UK last year were illegal, ranging from sophisticated counterfeits to casual copying.

In Germany, where the piracy rate is currently 28 percent, the Microsoft Product ID team has received about 1,000 items of software in the first year of operation, 90 percent of which was counterfeit.

According to Terry Anslow, chief investigator of the European Leisure Software Association, counterfeit software is often used by organised crime rings to launder money from more high-profile activities such as drug dealing and prostitution.