"Our situation is very much like when a bank mistakenly deposits money into your account. It's not yours to keep. I think people understand that," AltaVista spokesman David Emanuel said.
AltaVista is giving 1000 points, which equals a dollar's worth of credit, to anyone who participated in the company's Rewards Program contest between July 2 and July 4. It was during that period that some visitors discovered that the Web portal's computer system would bring up a "winner notice" if the contest page was refreshed several times, AltaVista said.
But dozens of enraged contest participants on almost a half dozen message boards say they disagree with the company's version of what happened. They say they received notices without ever hitting the refresher key.
"I have no sympathy for the people who forced it to display a winner page," said player Jay Battmer in an email to CNET News.com. "But it was pretty rough on those who played the game honestly and won nothing."
Many players called for AltaVista to honor all the winning notices, saying the company made the error and should stand by the word of its notices, erroneous or not.
Emanuel said there were 20 legitimate winners each day during that period who have received their $500 credit. The others, regardless of whether the person won by tinkering with the system, were incorrectly notified and are not entitled to share in the winnings.
In accordance with the rules of the Instant Win game a member is eligible to play the game once per day by clicking the link to the game page one time only, according to a copy of a letter AltaVista sent to players.
AltaVista has apologized for the error and said it hopes the 1000 points will be a step toward comforting those who thought they had won the $500 in credit.
"We have over 300,000 valued customers in our rewards program," Emanuel said. "We have corrected the mistake. When we've explained what happened, that it was a mistake, people seem to understand."