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Developer exposes multiple scam apps on the App Store, some bringing in millions of dollars in revenue

Over the last several weeks, developer Kosta Eleftheriou has been highlighting many apparent scam applications on the App Store. The formula for each scam application is virtually identical, and it centers on fake reviews and ratings paired with a deceptive weekly subscription.

Update February 11, 2021: Apple has given the following statement to The Verge regarding scam apps on the App Store.

We take feedback regarding fraudulent activity seriously, and investigate and take action on each report. The App Store is designed to be a safe and trusted place for users to get apps, and a great opportunity for developers to be successful.We do not tolerate fraudulent activity on the App Store, and have stringent rules against apps and developers who attempt to cheat the system. In 2020 alone, we terminated over half a million developer accounts for fraud, and removed over 60 million user reviews that were considered spam. As part of our ongoing efforts to maintain the integrity of our platform, our Discovery Fraud team actively works to remove these kinds of violations, and is constantly improving their process along the way.

Eleftheriou is the developer behind FlickType, a popular Apple Watch keyboard application that brings gesture typing to the wearable device. He was also one of the creators of the Flesky keyboard app, acquired by Pinterest, and Blind Type, acquired by Google.

The thread began two weeks ago, when Eleftheriou began highlighting applications that were essentially non-functional ripoffs of FlickType. One of the most blatant ones was KeyWatch:

Just a few months ago, I was way ahead of my competition. By the time they figured out just how hard autocorrect algorithms were, I was already rolling out the swipe version of my keyboard, quickly approaching iPhone typing speeds. So how did they beat me?

First, they made an app that appeared to fulfill the promise of a watch keyboard – but was practically unusable. Then, they started heavily advertising on FB & Instagram, using my own promo video, of my own app, with my actual name on it.

When users downloaded the app, the first screen was a blank interface with an “Unlock now” button. Tap the “Unlock now” button, and you’d be prompted with Apple’s buy screen to confirm an $8/week subscription for an app that was nonfunctional.

What about App Store reviews and ratings? The KeyWatch developers simply purchased fake ratings and reviews, which flooded the App Store listings and gave users the impression the app was a legitimate Apple Watch keyboard. According to Appfigures data, KeyWatch was generating $2 million a year through its App Store scam.

Fake ratings, and fake reviews. These quickly push the scams to the top of search results, leaving honest & hard-working developers in the dust. An old problem that’s not easy to solve, but one that’s at the core of why App Store app discovery is so problematic.

After Eleftheriou’s Twitter thread gained traction, Apple removed KeyWatch and a handful of other similar scam Apple Watch keyboard apps from the App Store. That being said, the company hasn’t taken as swift of action against similar applications from the same “developer.”

But since then, Eleftheriou has exposed additional scam applications on the App Store. Over the weekend, he posted a simple thread showcasing “how to spot a $5M/year scam on the App Store, in 5 minutes flat.” This time, he showcased Star Gazer+, which is still available on the App Store with a 4.4 rating and over 80,000 ratings.

The situation is nearly the same as the original example of KeyWatch. The “developer” releases a barely-functioning app with a weekly subscription requirement. The App Store listing is flooded with fake ratings and reviews, tricking users into thinking it’s a legitimate service.

Potential solutions

Developer Marco Arment chimed in on Twitter, suggesting that one solution to eliminate these scams would be for Apple to eliminate the weekly subscription billing option altogether. This has proven to be a common tactic used by many of the scammers highlighted by Eleftheriou’s tweets.

Other developers have also joined the conversation suggesting possible solutions. For instance, David Barnard retweeted a concept he first shared back in 2019 about how Apple could redesign the App Store’s “buy sheet” to make the payment terms more clear for users.

Eleftheriou also points out that some of Apple’s marketing materials for the App Store give users the impression that they shouldn’t have to worry about scam apps.

He also described reaching out to Apple directly to about these issues when speaking to TechCrunch:

“They put you in contact with the other developer in question, and oversee the thread while they hope you will resolve the issue with the other party directly,” he explains. “The scammers I complained about in that dispute weren’t even the bigger scammers I mention in my Twitter thread. Yet, the complaint I had with them barely got addressed, and there was no response from Apple whatsoever on the issue of the fake ratings and reviews. Simply a ‘if we don’t hear back from you very soon we consider the matter resolved’. We even reached out to Apple privately after that but got no response.”

Theoretically, App Store Review should be able to filter out some of these applications, but Apple should also make a better effort to weed out fake ratings and reviews. A quick Google search reveals just how advanced this industry is, making Apple’s silence even more deafening.

What do you think of the issues highlighted by Eleftheriou? Have you ever encountered a scam application on the App Store? Let us know down in the comments.

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Avatar for Chance Miller Chance Miller

Chance is an editor for the entire 9to5 network and covers the latest Apple news for 9to5Mac.

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