Apple seemingly cracking down on 'scammy' subscription apps

Posted:
in iOS edited October 2018
Apple appears to be ridding the App Store of so-called "scammy" apps after multiple media outlets exposed questionable pricing tactics that dupe users into expensive subscriptions.




On Monday, a TechCrunch report named a number of apps that seemingly manipulate Apple's subscription pricing mechanism to the disadvantage of users.

In many cases, "scammers" take advantage of Apple's subscription mechanism, which allows developers to provide free trials that automatically convert to monthly agreements. Specifically, unscrupulous app makers are using a "dark pattern," intentionally deceptive user interface elements, and other strategies designed to confuse or trick customers into starting convertible trial subscriptions.

The methods appear effective, as some "scammy" apps hover in the upper echelons of Apple's Top Grossing apps list despite offering limited, or in some cases duplicative, utility.

Earlier this month, Forbes published a long, but not exhaustive, list of apps that employ similar schemes to milk hundreds or thousands of dollars from individual users per year.

One such app, TinyLabs' QR Code Reader, pushed users to upgrade to a "Pro Version" by tapping a large "start" button that disguises monthly pricing information in small font. Users were then committed to a three-day free trial that auto-converted to a $3.99 per month subscription. The app was on track to generate annual revenue $5.3 million despite mirroring functionality found in Apple's own Camera app.

Weather Alarms, an app highlighted by TechCrunch, deceives with a full-screen ad with two buttons: try for free or pay. An option to close the window is timed to appear after a few seconds, leaving users to believe the two subscription choices are their only options. If the trial is not cancelled in time, unwitting customers wind up paying $20 a month for weather alerts.

Apple, however, appears to be cracking down on dubious titles. Both QR Code Reader and Weather Alarms are no longer available on the U.S. App Store, while 11 of the 17 apps mentioned in the Forbes article have also disappeared.

The matter boils down to customer awareness and vigilance, and Apple is at perhaps partially to blame for aberrant behavior after carefully pruning the apps in its walled garden.

Customers have come to expect a certain level of decorum from developers allowed in the App Store, as stipulated by Apple's Developer Guidelines. And indeed, the company strictly forbids fraudulent practices and notes developers must clearly state subscription terms.

From Apple's Developer Guidelines section 3.1.2(a)
Apps that attempt to trick users into purchasing a subscription under false pretenses or engage in bait-and-switch practices will be removed from the App Store and you may be removed from the Apple Developer Program.
Still, "scammy" apps exist and rank as some of the App Store's top grossers, proof that Apple is hard pressed to comprehensively police its massive digital software repository.

Ultimately, it is caveat emptor in the App Store. Users are urged to read the fine print, review purchase histories and know where to find, and how to cancel, active subscriptions (Settings > iTunes & App Store > Apple ID > View Apple ID > Subscriptions).
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 28
    bageljoeybageljoey Posts: 1,742member
    Thanks for the reminder on how to check subscriptions—I have no idea why Apple burries that information so deep—we should know what we are paying for!
    jbdragonapres587
  • Reply 2 of 28
    olsols Posts: 25member
    Perhaps this will also address the many freemium games that allow purchases of up to £99 for some questionable in-game items.
    I understand that development time needs to be paid for but it should always in relation to what is being offered. 
  • Reply 3 of 28
    Gimme a break. This sounds like the FaceBook excuse. How hard can it be to monitor the Apps in the App Store? Apple could bring down the hammer. Perminantly ban any app designers who break their rules. End of story. If there is no oversight, and zero repercussions...they will think they can get away with it...cause they can. And are! Apple got called out by the tech media...and now they are scrambling. Hopefully things will change now.
    dysamoria
  • Reply 4 of 28
    Don't want to sound like I know everything, but...

    90% of the personal data out there that's been harvested has been harvested in the last two years... (it just shows how bad it's getting and it's accelerating exponentially.)

    The first three companies to get to a billion users are Yahoo, Google and FaceBook. They all harvest and sell your data. 

    Most of the top 50 non-Apple apps in the App Store are harvesting and selling your data!

    I would like Apple in the App Store to have a little red Chinese flag next to the App if it was created in China...b/c even the Chinese VPN Apps are stealing your data! :)

    I have no Google, MS, Yahoo, Twitter, Amazon, or FaceBook products on my devices or in my home! :) 

    I am in the process of deleting all third party apps on my 2017 MacBook, iPad mini 2, SE, AppleWatch and AppleTV. Sorry DropBox, weather apps and PDF enhancer apps! The few apps I have, I start when I need them and close them when I'm done. Nothing runs in the background!)

    Only Apple software...if the Notes App is not as powerful as Evernote...I'll wait and do with out. Same with Mail, iTunes, Pages, Podcast, News, Books, Numbers, Safari (DuckDuckGo), Calendar, Messages, Contacts, Photos, Maps, Preview, Keychain, etc., etc.

    I would like Apple in the App Store to have a little red Chinese flag next to all the Apps created in China...b/c even the Chinese VPN Apps are stealing your data! Or better yet, in the filters have the option of no "Chinese Apps!"  :)

    P.S. KeyChain needs some serious love from Apple. I've had 1Password on all my devices. Good, but expensive and DashLane, good and less expensive. But still both were a bit clunky even tho they sort of synced. (For example, I'd, occassionally, be on a site and have to create a PW. I'd click on the PW create option for 1PW or DL and it'd say, "need some sort of character.) Didn't know what to do.

    P.S.S. Going to go with AnchorShield (No affiliation) until Apple makes my internet activity completely anonymous.

    Would love to read any thoughts on this....    :)

    edited October 2018 claire1watto_cobra
  • Reply 5 of 28
    chasmchasm Posts: 1,050member
    [a bunch of tinfoil hat stuff, but ...]

    P.S. KeyChain needs some serious love from Apple. I've had 1Password on all my devices. Good but expensive and DashLane, Good and less expensive, but still both were a bit clunky even tho they sort of synced.
    Keychain as of iOS 12/Mojave can effectively replace 1PW and Dashlane (et al) for most users, IMO. Both companies offer some features that Keychain does not -- like the shareable family vault Agilebits offers -- but for most users Keychain is now all you need, IMO.
    christopher126lkruppracerhomie3watto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 28
    chasm said:
    [a bunch of tinfoil hat stuff, but ...]

    P.S. KeyChain needs some serious love from Apple. I've had 1Password on all my devices. Good but expensive and DashLane, Good and less expensive, but still both were a bit clunky even tho they sort of synced.
    Keychain as of iOS 12/Mojave can effectively replace 1PW and Dashlane (et al) for most users, IMO. Both companies offer some features that Keychain does not -- like the shareable family vault Agilebits offers -- but for most users Keychain is now all you need, IMO.
    Thanks for the reply, Chasm. I agree.

    When I upgraded to Mohave, I cancelled DashLane for the exact reason(s) you describe. 

    I guess I meant more the KeyChain interface. I'd like to see something more Apple-like, simple and elegant.

    Similar to the way iWeb or Pages looked when the first were introduced. They had something like 3 icons in the Menu.

    Best Regards. :)


    edited October 2018 watto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 28
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 6,530member
    Even the Walled Garden isn’t safe from these supreme a-holes. 
    christopher126GeorgeBMacclaire1watto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 28
    chasm said:
    [a bunch of tinfoil hat stuff, but ...]
    P.S. As far as the 'tin-foil' hat stuff, Chasm...They are direct quotes from the CEO of AnchorFree (660 million users)...

    That's Kara Swisher's Podcast...Formally of the WSJ, All Things D, The Washington Post, NYT, etc.

    http://feeds.feedburner.com/Recode-Decode

    Best. :)

    edited October 2018 watto_cobra
  • Reply 9 of 28
    netroxnetrox Posts: 692member
    Really, Apple should have known better and design a way that allows the app to invoke an action where it move to Settings/Subscriptions with a list of pricing instead of allowing that subscription to appear inside apps. It's one of the dumb moves. Along with the infamous insecure dialog that looks like a system dialog.
    claire1
  • Reply 10 of 28
    Rayz2016Rayz2016 Posts: 4,520member
    netrox said:
    Really, Apple should have known better and design a way that allows the app to invoke an action where it move to Settings/Subscriptions with a list of pricing instead of allowing that subscription to appear inside apps. It's one of the dumb moves. Along with the infamous insecure dialog that looks like a system dialog.
    Have to agree. This like allowing apps to invoke their own FaceID function. 

    Tap on a button for an in app buy, then you should see a simple system dialog telling you exactly what you’re paying for and how long. 

    Oh, and since Apple is pushing subscriptions then they need a separate subs manager app, rather than having the info buried in settings. 

    Oh, and before each subscription is due, you should be asked if you want continue with it, regardless of what you agreed to the year before. 

    A crackdown whenever TechCrunch exposes a problem is not tackling the problem. 
    edited October 2018 JWSCclaire1watto_cobraapres587
  • Reply 11 of 28
    lkrupp said:
    Even the Walled Garden isn’t safe from these supreme a-holes. 
    No. And that’s why using your brain, being conscious about what you do and reading fine print is still a good idea. I recommend it daily. 
  • Reply 12 of 28
    It is strange to see that the offending applications are removed from the US appstore and not from the appstore of other countries ...
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 13 of 28
    It is strange to see that the offending applications are removed from the US appstore and not from the appstore of other countries ...
  • Reply 14 of 28
    The situation with regard to subscriptions of all sorts is just getting silly.
    It seems that virtually everything is pay per month these days. You can get yourself into financial black hole if you are not careful.
    It is not just stuff from the AppStore but out in the real world. Phone, Cable, TV packages, Washer maintenance, Window cleaning etc etc etc. Even food deliveries can be had on subscription.

    Take a good long hard look at what you are paying for and ask yourself several times over a period of a week, if they are really, really, really worth it. If not cancel them. You might be surprised at how much money from your monthly outgoings you can save.

    I'm now down to just a few. Mobile Phone ($14/month) and Broadband(40$/month) .
    Everything else is gone. After a bit, I didn't miss them one little bit.

    Naturally YMMV
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 15 of 28
    Rayz2016Rayz2016 Posts: 4,520member
    The situation with regard to subscriptions of all sorts is just getting silly.
    It seems that virtually everything is pay per month these days. You can get yourself into financial black hole if you are not careful.
    It is not just stuff from the AppStore but out in the real world. Phone, Cable, TV packages, Washer maintenance, Window cleaning etc etc etc. Even food deliveries can be had on subscription.

    Take a good long hard look at what you are paying for and ask yourself several times over a period of a week, if they are really, really, really worth it. If not cancel them. You might be surprised at how much money from your monthly outgoings you can save.

    I'm now down to just a few. Mobile Phone ($14/month) and Broadband(40$/month) .
    Everything else is gone. After a bit, I didn't miss them one little bit.

    Naturally YMMV

    I have nothing against subscriptions in principle, but I do think that what we're seeing here will just be the tip of the iceberg; people just don't have the time to keep track of every sub that goes out of their account.
    GeorgeBMacwatto_cobra
  • Reply 16 of 28
    BluntBlunt Posts: 219member
    I recently discovered a simple teaching app on my daughters iPhone. I was just in time to cancel the auto renewal subscription which was something like 7,95 euro a month. This is really bad because you don't want to pay anything to scams like this.
    GeorgeBMacwatto_cobra
  • Reply 17 of 28
    ChrisMarshall3DChrisMarshall3D Posts: 4unconfirmed, member
    Finding subscriptions needs to be easier too!! This is well hidden and for the average person for something that is being paid for every month, needs to be at the top level really!
    Settings >
         iTunes & App Store >
             Apple ID >
                View Apple ID >
                   Subscriptions
    That's nuts and not obvious at all as one of these clicks doesn't even look like a button!!

    JWSCclaire1apres587
  • Reply 18 of 28
    I don’t get how someone can be duped into paying a monthly subscription fee.
  • Reply 19 of 28
    I don’t get how someone can be duped into paying a monthly subscription fee.
    Easy. FaceApp... for example:
    - daughter wants to test new hairstyles
    - download free app for her
    - open app for the first time
    - “do you want to start a free trial”
    - sure
    - 24 hours later an email arrives to say I would roll into a $30 yearly subscription at the end of my 3 day trial (I did not notice this email)
    - later that week, daughter asked to play with the face thingy again and I was surprised that the app still had full functionality. No notification regarding the end of the trial, no request to confirm suscription... then I found the email!

    Sure. I was caught napping, not paying enough attention. I am normally switched on to these sorts of things, but not this time. I’m sure many others have fallen victim the same way. This “opt-out” subscription model needs to be heavily restricted or stopped all together. 

    gatorguyclaire1watto_cobra
  • Reply 20 of 28
    MacProMacPro Posts: 17,835member
    chasm said:
    [a bunch of tinfoil hat stuff, but ...]

    P.S. KeyChain needs some serious love from Apple. I've had 1Password on all my devices. Good but expensive and DashLane, Good and less expensive, but still both were a bit clunky even tho they sort of synced.
    Keychain as of iOS 12/Mojave can effectively replace 1PW and Dashlane (et al) for most users, IMO. Both companies offer some features that Keychain does not -- like the shareable family vault Agilebits offers -- but for most users Keychain is now all you need, IMO.
    I agree.  After our Netflix account was accessed and the user name and password changed recently (PatelHo I hope you choke to death on an olive) I reevaluated my security set up across our entire network.  It seems likely a relative's device might have been compromised after a visit to us and use of our Netflix password.  Some were not Apple devices (never again) ... that said I don't know for sure so I systematically changed every password we have using Apple's automatic password generator and added them to Keychain.  However, I found several web sites where the 'Add to Keychain?' never showed up which left me unable to log in.  Of course it was simple enough to ask to change the passwords and in all cases that screen did have the 'Add to Keychain?' question thankfully.
    edited October 2018 watto_cobra
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