Report Reveals In-App Purchase Scams in the App Store

An investigation into App Store developer pay-outs has uncovered a scamming trend in which apps advertising fake services are making thousands of dollars a month from in-app purchases.

In a Medium article titled How to Make $80,000 Per Month on the Apple App Store, Johnny Lin describes how he discovered the practice, which works by manipulating search ads to promote dubious apps in the App Store and then preys on unsuspecting users via the in-app purchase mechanism.

scam apps

I scrolled down the list in the Productivity category and saw apps from well-known companies like Dropbox, Evernote, and Microsoft. That was to be expected. But what's this? The #10 Top Grossing Productivity app (as of June 7th, 2017) was an app called "Mobile protection :Clean & Security VPN".

Given the terrible title of this app (inconsistent capitalization, misplaced colon, and grammatically nonsensical "Clean & Security VPN?"), I was sure this was a bug in the rankings algorithm. So I check Sensor Tower for an estimate of the app's revenue, which showed… $80,000 per month?? That couldn't possibly be right. Now I was really curious.

To learn how this could be, Lin installed and ran the app, and was soon prompted to start a "free trial" for an "anti-virus scanner" (iOS does not need anti-virus software thanks to Apple's sandboxing rules for individual apps). Tapping on the trial offer then threw up a Touch ID authentication prompt containing the text "You will pay $99.99 for a 7-day subscription starting Jun 9, 2017".

scam apps 1
Lin was one touch away from paying $400 a month for a non-existent service offered by a scammer.

It suddenly made a lot of sense how this app generates $80,000 a month. At $400/month per subscriber, it only needs to scam 200 people to make $80,000/month, or $960,000 a year. Of that amount, Apple takes 30%, or $288,000 — from just this one app.

Lin went on to explain how dishonorable developers are able to take advantage of Apple's App Store search ads product because there's no filtering or approval process involved. Not only that, ads look almost indistinguishable from real results in the store, while some ads take up the entire search result's first page.

Lin dug deeper and found several other similar apps making money off the same scam, suggesting a wider disturbing trend, with scam apps regularly showing up in the App Store's top grossing lists.

It's unclear at this point how these apps managed to make it onto the App Store in the first place given Apple's usually stringent approval process, or whether changes to the search ads system in iOS 11 will prevent this immoral practice from occurring in future. We'll be sure to update this article if we hear more from Apple.

In the meantime, users can contact Apple if they have concerns about an app they've already purchased, or report scam apps if they see them, by using the iTunes Connect Contact Us form. (Select "Feedback and Concerns" and "Report a Fraud Concern".) It's also worth informing less savvy friends of this scamming trend until something is done to eradicate it.

Top Rated Comments

djcerla Avatar
74 months ago
A fool and his money are soon parted.

But an antivirus should not be in the App Store to begin with.
Score: 20 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Phil A. Avatar
74 months ago
Reading the linked article, it seems the scammers are (ab)using the new advertising within the App Store to promote their "apps" and making thousands and thousands of dollars doing so.
Doesn't really reflect well on Apple IMO - the whole purpose of the walled garden is that it's safer than the wild west approach of Google and that should include protecting people from getting scammed
Score: 19 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Ploki Avatar
74 months ago
I can't remember the last time I even downloaded an app from the App Store never mind paying for any in app purchases.

Hope people wise up to this.
There's plenty of useful paid apps, and plenty of quality fun paid games, even with IAPs. your generalization is quite pointless.
Score: 16 Votes (Like | Disagree)
miknos Avatar
74 months ago
Like MacKeeper for macOS.
Score: 15 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Edsel Avatar
74 months ago
With Apple, Inc. taking 33% of App revenue, hosting criminal apps under their brand, bragging about their security, and not immediately stopping this activity.....there must be a bunch of class action lawyers jumping for joy.
Score: 12 Votes (Like | Disagree)
WarHeadz Avatar
74 months ago
No doubt more can and should be done by Apple when it comes to policing such scams, but shouldn't the victims bear some degree of the blame as well? The terms and conditions are right there in front of them, and nobody is twisting their arm into making a purchase.
You might have a point if a legitimate service was being offered here. In this case, the service being advertised is non-existant. It's fraud.
Score: 12 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Popular Stories

iphone 15 pro wifi 6e

Internal Apple Document From Leaker 'Unknownz21' Confirms Wi-Fi 6E Will Be Limited to iPhone 15 Pro Models

Friday January 27, 2023 10:01 am PST by
Multiple rumors have suggested that the next-generation iPhone 15 models will adopt the Wi-Fi 6E standard that Apple has already introduced in the iPad Pro and MacBook Pro, and now a leaked document appears to confirm Apple's plans. Sourced from researcher and Apple leaker Unknownz21 (@URedditor), the document features diagrams of the iPhone 15's antenna architecture. D8x refers to the...
iPhone 14 Pro Purple Side Perspective Feature Purple

iPhone 15 Pro Rumored to Have These 8 Features

Friday January 27, 2023 2:11 pm PST by
Apple's next-generation iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max are expected to be announced in September as usual. Already, rumors suggest the devices will have at least eight exclusive features not available on the standard iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus. An overview of the eight features rumored to be exclusive to iPhone 15 Pro models:A17 chip: iPhone 15 Pro models will be equipped with an A17...
top stories 28jan2023

Top Stories: iOS 16.3 Released, iPhone 15 Pro Rumors, macOS Tips and Tricks, and More

Saturday January 28, 2023 6:00 am PST by
Following last week's hardware announcements, this week saw the actual release of several of the new products as well as operating system updates bringing new features and bug fixes across Apple's platforms. This week also saw some fresh rumors about the iPhone 15 lineup and Apple's upcoming AR/VR headset, while we shared some tips to help you get the most of your macOS experience, so read...
Multi Display CarPlay 1

Apple Launching All-New CarPlay Experience Later This Year With These 5 Features

Sunday January 29, 2023 10:15 am PST by
In June 2022, Apple previewed the next generation of CarPlay, promising deeper integration with vehicle functions like A/C and FM radio, support for multiple displays across the dashboard, personalization options, and more. Apple says the first vehicles with support for the next-generation CarPlay experience will be announced in late 2023, with committed automakers including Acura, Audi,...
maxresdefault

Hands-On With the New M2 Max MacBook Pro

Thursday January 26, 2023 12:14 pm PST by
New 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models with the latest M2 Pro and M2 Max chips are available in Apple retail stores and are already in the hands of customers, and we picked up one of the new M2 Max machines to answer all of the questions MacRumors readers considering a purchase might have. Subscribe to the MacRumors YouTube channel for more videos. Yesterday, we asked MacRumors fans on...
iPhone 15 General Mock Feature

Kuo: iPhone 15 Models to Adopt Wi-Fi 6E

Thursday January 26, 2023 5:09 pm PST by
The upcoming iPhone 15 models that are set to be introduced later in 2023 will adopt the Wi-Fi 6E standard, according to Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo. In a note about Apple's work on a Wi-Fi chip, Kuo said that the company will upgrade the iPhone 15 to Wi-Fi 6E. Apple is already using Wi-Fi 6E for the 11 and 12.9-inch iPad Pro models introduced last year, along with the new Mac mini and...
iPhone 14 Pro Purple Side Perspective Feature Purple

iPhone 15 Expected to Feature Wi-Fi 6E Like Latest Macs and iPad Pro

Wednesday January 25, 2023 5:39 pm PST by
The iPhone 15 will support Wi-Fi 6E, according to a research note shared this week by Barclays analysts Blayne Curtis and Tom O'Malley. The analysts did not specify whether the feature will be available on all models or limited to the Pro models. Apple has added Wi-Fi 6E support to a handful of devices so far, including the latest 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro, 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook...