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
89 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
89 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
89 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
89 months ago
Like MacKeeper for macOS.
Score: 15 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Edsel Avatar
89 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
89 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

iOS 18 Siri Integrated Feature

iOS 18 Will Add These New Features to Your iPhone

Friday April 12, 2024 11:11 am PDT by
iOS 18 is expected to be the "biggest" update in the iPhone's history. Below, we recap rumored features and changes for the iPhone. iOS 18 is rumored to include new generative AI features for Siri and many apps, and Apple plans to add RCS support to the Messages app for an improved texting experience between iPhones and Android devices. The update is also expected to introduce a more...
Delta Feature

Delta Game Emulator Now Available From App Store on iPhone

Wednesday April 17, 2024 9:58 am PDT by
Game emulator apps have come and gone since Apple announced App Store support for them on April 5, but now popular game emulator Delta from developer Riley Testut is available for download. Testut is known as the developer behind GBA4iOS, an open-source emulator that was available for a brief time more than a decade ago. GBA4iOS led to Delta, an emulator that has been available outside of...
iOS NES Emulator Bimmy Feature

NES Emulator for iPhone and iPad Now Available on App Store [Removed]

Tuesday April 16, 2024 11:33 am PDT by
The first approved Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) emulator for the iPhone and iPad was made available on the App Store today following Apple's rule change. The emulator is called Bimmy, and it was developed by Tom Salvo. On the App Store, Bimmy is described as a tool for testing and playing public domain/"homebrew" games created for the NES, but the app allows you to load ROMs for any...
iGBA Feature

Apple Removes Game Boy Emulator iGBA From App Store Due to Spam and Copyright Violations

Sunday April 14, 2024 9:22 pm PDT by
Apple today said it removed Game Boy emulator iGBA from the App Store for violating the company's App Review Guidelines related to spam (section 4.3) and copyright (section 5.2), but it did not provide any specific details. iGBA was a copycat version of developer Riley Testut's open-source GBA4iOS app. The emulator rose to the top of the App Store charts following its release this weekend,...
iPhone 15 Pro Action Button Translate

All iPhone 16 Models to Feature Action Button, But Usefulness Debated

Tuesday April 16, 2024 6:54 am PDT by
Last September, Apple's iPhone 15 Pro models debuted with a new customizable Action button, offering faster access to a handful of functions, as well as the ability to assign Shortcuts. Apple is poised to include the feature on all upcoming iPhone 16 models, so we asked iPhone 15 Pro users what their experience has been with the additional button so far. The Action button replaces the switch ...
iGBA Feature

Game Boy Emulator for iPhone Now Available in App Store Following Rule Change [Removed]

Sunday April 14, 2024 8:06 am PDT by
A week after Apple updated its App Review Guidelines to permit retro game console emulators, a Game Boy emulator for the iPhone called iGBA has appeared in the App Store worldwide. The emulator is already one of the top free apps on the App Store charts. It was not entirely clear if Apple would allow emulators to work with all and any games, but iGBA is able to load any Game Boy ROMs that...