IT user groups have criticised software copyright organisation the Federation Against Software Theft for using scare tactics to get company board members to attend its events.
Two weeks ago the group launched a pilot scheme targeting 100 company directors with e-mails, saying it had reason to believe that their company staff were using illegal or unlicensed software and warning them that they risked 10 years in prison or "unlimited fines".
One Computer Weekly reader from a large blue-chip company said his managing director was "sent into a panic" after receiving what he said was an unfounded and threatening e-mail from Fast claiming the company was in breach of software piracy laws.
In fact, the purpose of the e-mail was to plug a Fast seminar in London.
"It is extortion. Fast is trying it on," said David Roberts, chief executive of corporate IT forum Tif. "It is a despicable practice. Our advice to anyone dealing with organisations which make such claims is to refer them to the legal department or ignore it. It looks like it is just a Fast way of making a buck."
Richard Willmott, general manager of Fast, admitted that recipients of the e-mail had complained but said there was no point "sugar coating" the issue. "Most organisations are using software illegally," he said.
He denied the e-mail was based on false information.