Another $1 million scam app surfaces amid App Store legal battles

Posted:
in iOS
Kosta Eleftheriou uncovered yet another app scam on the App Store that grosses $1 million a month exemplifying Apple's troubled review process.

Scam apps run rampant on the App Store
Scam apps run rampant on the App Store


The App Store is a closed ecosystem full of apps that have been reviewed by Apple. It is the only place an iPhone or iPad user can obtain apps and Apple wants it to stay that way.

Kosta Eleftheriou is the developer of FlickType and has sued Apple over fraudulent apps in the App Store. His case centers around the existence of copycat apps that can duplicate his work and trick people out of money.

The latest scam app Eleftheriou discovered is called StringVPN. It violates multiple rules for the App Store, offers a $9.99/week subscription, and doesn't have a real website. The app has obvious fake reviews that are shown at the top of the list due to their 5-star rating, and the app even uses advertisements stating it is "recommended by Apple."

I don't know what's worse about this app:

- "Translated" fake reviews
- "Recommended by Apple" popups in Safari
- https://t.co/Kq5lRrKCWc contact email
- Blank website, registered in India
- $9.99/week subscription
- Grossing $1M (!) a month

What is Apple even doing?? pic.twitter.com/5oUBCJ2GNh

-- Kosta Eleftheriou (@keleftheriou)


Based on the problems listed, Apple should never have allowed such an app to exist on the App Store. Not only is it an approved app, but it is also able to gross $1 million a week in fraudulent income.

He believes that if the App Store were actually a safe place for consumers, then scam apps and fakes like this wouldn't be able to make it through the review process. Eleftheriou started pointing out scam apps and their ability to generate millions in revenue before suing Apple directly.

Apple says that it uses human reviewers to check each app submission "to ensure they are reliable, perform as expected, respect user privacy, and are free of objectionable content." The App Store is meant to be the only source of software on devices to keep users from non-optimized software or scams.

Apple has voiced "surprise" over developer's irritation with the app review process.

Eleftheriou's complaints with Apple echo those from the wider developer community and Epic Games. He also asserts that Apple uses its position to control the market, which won't be as easy to argue as the existence of scam apps.

Apple has already started assessing apps with in-app purchases differently. Some developers are being asked to explain why a price was chosen or how a subscription is viable for their apps.

The existence of such apps on the App Store goes against Apple's stance on safety and privacy. Rooting out scam apps will likely be a focus going forward, but the effort could prove difficult. WWDC 2021 takes place in June, and there will likely be new guidelines and APIs to address several of the concerns brought up by developers over the past year.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 24
    sflocalsflocal Posts: 5,460member
    Other than the very few apps I use on my iPhone, I rarely use or download anything from the App Store.  My recent use of it a few months ago due to COVID stay-at-home boredom had me going on the App Store to view games.

    Of the few games I downloaded, I was disgusted at how in-your-face all the games were in terms of doing anything and everything to get/trick me into "buying" in-app stuff.  It was a horrible experience and completely shut me off from using it again.  I deleted these apps.

    Apple can and needs to do better.  The App Store has become a cesspool of sketchy activity and bad-players are really ruining it for everyone else.  
    muthuk_vanalingamviclauyycAlex1Nwatto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 24
    launfalllaunfall Posts: 50member
    Good luck, Tim, when you're sitting in the witness chair during the Epic Games lawsuit explaining how you can justify your walled garden when it is so full of weeds you make money off of. And why, after being notified of bad apps they are still available in your store. Apple needs the app equivalent of Round-Up!
    dantheman827Alex1N
  • Reply 3 of 24
    sflocalsflocal Posts: 5,460member
    launfall said:
    Good luck, Tim, when you're sitting in the witness chair during the Epic Games lawsuit explaining how you can justify your walled garden when it is so full of weeds you make money off of. And why, after being notified of bad apps they are still available in your store. Apple needs the app equivalent of Round-Up!
    Nothing is 100% perfect.  Yes, the App Store has its problems and yes, perhaps Apple is getting cocky with how it manages it, but I'll gladly take it over Android any day where scam apps are the norm, not the exception.

    And Epic wants it to be MORE like Android!

    qwerty52Rayz2016InspiredCodeAlex1Njony0watto_cobra
  • Reply 4 of 24
    larryjwlarryjw Posts: 730member
    launfall said:
    Good luck, Tim, when you're sitting in the witness chair during the Epic Games lawsuit explaining how you can justify your walled garden when it is so full of weeds you make money off of. And why, after being notified of bad apps they are still available in your store. Apple needs the app equivalent of Round-Up!
    Just the opposite. The ability of scam apps will reinforce the Walled Garden approach and the importance of Apple putting more resources into Walling-up the App Store -- which costs money.

    It even suggests that Apple shouldn't be giving away the App Store for free to developers. It makes no sense for developers to be in business if they don't make any money from their efforts -- that's not a business. If you're not making money by selling to your customer, and you're in business, you must be making money some other way -- selling the customer, scamming the customer? 
    edited April 7 watto_cobra
  • Reply 5 of 24
    launfall said:
    Good luck, Tim, when you're sitting in the witness chair during the Epic Games lawsuit explaining how you can justify your walled garden when it is so full of weeds you make money off of. And why, after being notified of bad apps they are still available in your store. Apple needs the app equivalent of Round-Up!
    I agree that Apple needs a crew to clean up the App Store, I don’t think that this helps Epic’s breach of contract with them. Epic has to prove they were harmed and their actions are justified after being harmed, which is going to be hard to prove, even after deposing all of the Apple execs they want to. 

    The bottom line for the case is, why did you agree to the terms if you felt you were unfairly treated, and why didn’t you terminate the agreement and sue instead of violating the agreement and get thrown out of the App Store and then sue?

    just because you feel like you are getting screwed does not give you the right to violate the agreement and change the terms unilaterally. If it did we would have millions of cases flooding the legal system. 
    qwerty52Alex1Nwatto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 24
    genovellegenovelle Posts: 1,087member
    launfall said:
    Good luck, Tim, when you're sitting in the witness chair during the Epic Games lawsuit explaining how you can justify your walled garden when it is so full of weeds you make money off of. And why, after being notified of bad apps they are still available in your store. Apple needs the app equivalent of Round-Up!
    Well let’s see. How many such apps are on markets that are not curated like Apple’s Store. I’d like to know that number. Fight to keep customers safe is a cat and mouse game that is very expensive. Most companies are not going to put the same effort into doing what Apple does. 

    maximarawatto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 24
    qwerty52qwerty52 Posts: 267member
    launfall said:
    Good luck, Tim, when you're sitting in the witness chair during the Epic Games lawsuit explaining how you can justify your walled garden when it is so full of weeds you make money off of. And why, after being notified of bad apps they are still available in your store. Apple needs the app equivalent of Round-Up!
    I agree that Apple needs a crew to clean up the App Store, I don’t think that this helps Epic’s breach of contract with them. Epic has to prove they were harmed and their actions are justified after being harmed, which is going to be hard to prove, even after deposing all of the Apple execs they want to. 

    The bottom line for the case is, why did you agree to the terms if you felt you were unfairly treated, and why didn’t you terminate the agreement and sue instead of violating the agreement and get thrown out of the App Store and then sue?

    just because you feel like you are getting screwed does not give you the right to violate the agreement and change the terms unilaterally. If it did we would have millions of cases flooding the legal system. 

    Yes, 
    And there is one more difficult thing for Epic to explain:
    Why Epic did used AppStore for so many years without complaining, and now suddenly decided it to sue Apple, 
    while the rules of the AppStore did never changed all those years and they has remained all the time the same?
    edited April 7 watto_cobrahammeroftruth
  • Reply 8 of 24
    Apple curates a lot on the store, but searches don’t drive you toward the curated content. Searching tends to bring you to the sketchy side of the store where bad actors try to manipulate the search results and reviews.
    edited April 7 hammeroftruth
  • Reply 9 of 24
    asdasdasdasd Posts: 5,602member
    This kind of made me feel I should get into the VPN business. 

    I download and pay for a lot of apps. Mostly they work and sometimes they don't so I get the money back if I have paid. I don't see why the users of String VPN could not do that. I mean $1M a month?
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 24
    asdasdasdasd Posts: 5,602member

    larryjw said:
    launfall said:
    Good luck, Tim, when you're sitting in the witness chair during the Epic Games lawsuit explaining how you can justify your walled garden when it is so full of weeds you make money off of. And why, after being notified of bad apps they are still available in your store. Apple needs the app equivalent of Round-Up!
    Just the opposite. The ability of scam apps will reinforce the Walled Garden approach and the importance of Apple putting more resources into Walling-up the App Store -- which costs money.

    It even suggests that Apple shouldn't be giving away the App Store for free to developers. It makes no sense for developers to be in business if they don't make any money from their efforts -- that's not a business. If you're not making money by selling to your customer, and you're in business, you must be making money some other way -- selling the customer, scamming the customer? 
    Nothing from Apple is free, the developers who are giving away their apps for free are at least paying $99 a year.  Thats fairly expensive for just hosting data. Theres a bit more, but not much. 

    Plenty of companies will create free apps for their customers as a convince or a website replacement. My bank doesn't charge for its app, and the app is definitely a cost to it, but it adds plenty of convenience for their customers. Some apps are from bedroom developers. 

    Its pretty bad that this company didn't every have a website, though. 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 11 of 24
    asdasdasdasd Posts: 5,602member
    Wow, the 1 star reviews are damming. 

    Was charged for app from a pop up. Could not find a way to contact and request refund. Had to contact apple and report it. Was told I would be refunded. Still waiting for the refund. Will be reporting them over and over again!

    So it looks like a popup sends them to the App Store and somehow they are charged immediately. As in $99, and it can't be cancelled. I think that's not possible on the App Store itself but it can happen on dodgy websites.

    Theres a dozen or so 1 start reviews from real people and then lots of 5 stars from obvious fakes. Apple really needs to up their game on fakes. At the very least make it a banning offence. 

    Here it is:

    https://apps.apple.com/us/app/privacy-assistant-stringvpn/id1555252831#see-all/reviews
    muthuk_vanalingamrandominternetpersonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 24
    How does anyone outside Apple or that developer know that it generates "$1 million a month"?  That estimate must be based on something, so what's the source?  (Not blaming AI for this, I just question the assertion by the dude with a Greek name.)
    edited April 7 watto_cobra
  • Reply 13 of 24
    Why the heck is "gmail.ru" a hyperlink in the article pointing to some t.co URL.  I'm not clicking that.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 14 of 24
    fahlmanfahlman Posts: 719member
    Anyone willing to pay $10 per week for SringVPN when ExpressVPN, NordVPN, or any other trustworthy VPN provider can be had for 25% of the cost is getting exactly what they deserve.
    Alex1Nwatto_cobra
  • Reply 15 of 24
    dewmedewme Posts: 3,399member
    In this case, feigning outrage by presenting a big raw number ($1 million!!!) is a red herring. The number of apps purchased from the App Store is a big number, so even tiny fractions of illegitimate bogus charges get amplified to result in a big number. It's like figuring out the raw cost of lost productivity due to 10 million computers that take 1 minute too long to boot up by calculating 1 minute of pay for 10 million workers earning some average hourly rate.  (If the average pay rate is $20/hr this wasted minute of boot time would cost $3.33 million per day or $100 million per month). Big numbers have an amplifying effect - because they are big numbers.

    What would be more meaningful to me would be to see the ratio of "scam apps" that make it through the verification process against the total number of apps that get submitted for review. With humans in the loop, either directly or by virtue of automation running using programs developed by humans, the failure rate of every process is going to be non-zero. Apple needs to know that number and track it to see how their review process is working. You cannot control what you cannot measure, and I'd bet that Apple measures, and feeds the error back into the control loop. Negative feedback, taken in context, is essential for tuning a process. Is running around like Chicken Little, spewing big numbers out of context, engaging lawyers, and throwing insults at Apple an effective feedback process that will help tune the system? I guess it is to some degree, but is he doing it to advance THE cause, or only to advance HIS cause. I think the latter, but that's my opinion.

    There are actually several agendas be pushed around this issue. One is the notion that because Apple is the sole curator of their system, they must be perfect, and if not perfect, they must be held accountable for not being perfect. This is an emotional perspective but one greatly lacking in perspective and pragmatism. What's greatly lacking is a proposed remedy that yields a better outcome than what is currently being done. It falls into the same empty hole that pervades too much current anger driven action. It's easy to say "blow the whole thing up because I don't like it," but it's enormously difficult to come up with a solution or way to make things better. It's like six year olds kicking over a sandcastle and walking away. But we're not talking six year olds, we're talking full grown adults, ones who are quite possibly equipped with six year old brains.  
    muthuk_vanalingamAlex1Nwatto_cobra
  • Reply 16 of 24
    looplessloopless Posts: 186member
    Only a couple of years ago developers  were screaming bloody murder about the slow pace of app reviews and their app being rejected! Can't have it both ways. Apple clearly , for example, has some kind of automated process for app update reviews as they get 'passed' often in a few hours. No way a human looked at the update. Let me repeat, developers can't have it both ways. A more thorough review process will cause delays in apps getting reviewed/updated.
    Alex1NIreneWwatto_cobra
  • Reply 17 of 24
    larryjwlarryjw Posts: 730member
    asdasd said:

    larryjw said:
    launfall said:
    Good luck, Tim, when you're sitting in the witness chair during the Epic Games lawsuit explaining how you can justify your walled garden when it is so full of weeds you make money off of. And why, after being notified of bad apps they are still available in your store. Apple needs the app equivalent of Round-Up!
    Just the opposite. The ability of scam apps will reinforce the Walled Garden approach and the importance of Apple putting more resources into Walling-up the App Store -- which costs money.

    It even suggests that Apple shouldn't be giving away the App Store for free to developers. It makes no sense for developers to be in business if they don't make any money from their efforts -- that's not a business. If you're not making money by selling to your customer, and you're in business, you must be making money some other way -- selling the customer, scamming the customer? 
    Nothing from Apple is free, the developers who are giving away their apps for free are at least paying $99 a year.  Thats fairly expensive for just hosting data. Theres a bit more, but not much. 

    Plenty of companies will create free apps for their customers as a convince or a website replacement. My bank doesn't charge for its app, and the app is definitely a cost to it, but it adds plenty of convenience for their customers. Some apps are from bedroom developers. 

    Its pretty bad that this company didn't every have a website, though. 
    I pay far more for coffee per year than $99. 
    Alex1Nwatto_cobra
  • Reply 18 of 24
    mcdavemcdave Posts: 1,569member
    launfall said:
    Good luck, Tim, when you're sitting in the witness chair during the Epic Games lawsuit explaining how you can justify your walled garden when it is so full of weeds you make money off of. And why, after being notified of bad apps they are still available in your store. Apple needs the app equivalent of Round-Up!
    At least the “walled garden” means these Apps are the exception rather than the rule.
    I would like to see a quality drive and Apple be more assertive with poor 1st-party framework adoption and release all new Apple Silicon engines via APIs only. ‘Outing’ poorly written Apps with warnings.
    Alex1Nwatto_cobra
  • Reply 19 of 24
    mcdavemcdave Posts: 1,569member
    asdasd said:
    Wow, the 1 star reviews are damming. 

    Was charged for app from a pop up. Could not find a way to contact and request refund. Had to contact apple and report it. Was told I would be refunded. Still waiting for the refund. Will be reporting them over and over again!

    So it looks like a popup sends them to the App Store and somehow they are charged immediately. As in $99, and it can't be cancelled. I think that's not possible on the App Store itself but it can happen on dodgy websites.

    Theres a dozen or so 1 start reviews from real people and then lots of 5 stars from obvious fakes. Apple really needs to up their game on fakes. At the very least make it a banning offence. 

    Here it is:

    https://apps.apple.com/us/app/privacy-assistant-stringvpn/id1555252831#see-all/reviews
    There’s no where near enough information about this scenario to hold the App Store culpable. Sending the user to an external payment system is the thing Apple bans & is fighting to keep banning.
    Alex1Nwatto_cobra
  • Reply 20 of 24
    michelb76michelb76 Posts: 211member
    sflocal said:
    Other than the very few apps I use on my iPhone, I rarely use or download anything from the App Store.  My recent use of it a few months ago due to COVID stay-at-home boredom had me going on the App Store to view games.

    Of the few games I downloaded, I was disgusted at how in-your-face all the games were in terms of doing anything and everything to get/trick me into "buying" in-app stuff.  It was a horrible experience and completely shut me off from using it again.  I deleted these apps.

    Apple can and needs to do better.  The App Store has become a cesspool of sketchy activity and bad-players are really ruining it for everyone else.  
    Agreed. I dread having to find something in the store. Dodging knockoffs or just completely crap apps is getting much harder these days. Also doesn't help that Apple is actively promoting the pay-to-play games.
    Alex1N
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