Scam iOS Apps Still Raking in Millions in Revenue on App Store [Updated]

The problem of scam iOS apps has dogged Apple's App Store for some years now, but over last two weeks the developer Kosta Eleftheriou has taken to Twitter to highlight that the problem remains as big as ever in at least some app categories – and also offered iOS users a way to spot them.

app store safe secure
Taking blatant rip-offs of his own popular FlickType Apple Watch keyboard app as an example of how scammers prey on and exploit the work of genuine app developers, Eleftheriou exposed some of the ways these scams work.

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.

According to Eleftheriou, there are several clones of his FlickType app, but one of the most clear non-functional rip-offs was "KeyWatch," which launched with a blank interface and an "Unlock now" button. Tapping the button prompted users to confirm an $8/week subscription for an app that doesn't do anything.

According to Eleftheriou, the scam achieved prominence in the App Store by gaming Apple's algorithmic ranking system through the purchase of fake ratings and glowing five-star reviews, which bumped it up to the top of its app category. It even advertised its software using his own promotional video, which includes his actual name.


Apple has since removed the fake app from the App Store, although the developer account responsible for multiple scam apps remains active. Eleftheriou says that before KeyWatch was taken down, the developers had long benefited from what had become a $2 million-per-year scam that went largely unnoticed by Apple moderators until he personally exposed it.

Since that time, Eleftheriou has been on a Twitter crusade to expose more scam apps in the App Store, such as the so-called star gazing app that goes by the name "Star Gazer+" and basically uses the same time-proven strategy of masquerading as a genuine app that's barely functional and hoodwinks users into an exorbitant in-app weekly subscription fee.

As of writing, the scam app "Star Gazer+" is still listed on the App Store with 4.5 star average rating and over 80,000 reviews.

Eleftheriou's exposure of the rampant App Store scheme has led many more developers and critics to share their own experiences and hopefully put pressure on Apple to tighten up its app moderation and consider overhauling its billing interface and options, including the suggestion of removing the weekly subscription option altogether.

Update: In a statement provided to The Verge, Apple said that it does not tolerate fraudulent activity on the App Store and that its Discovery Fraud team is actively working to remove violations.

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.

Top Rated Comments

Scottsoapbox Avatar
8 months ago
Glad that 30% cut is being put to good use and not merely a monopoly tax.
Score: 24 Votes (Like | Disagree)
ani4ani Avatar
8 months ago
Apple has since removed the fake app from the App Store, although the developer account responsible for multiple scam apps remains active ('https://twitter.com/keleftheriou/status/1356725679102943232'). Eleftheriou says that before KeyWatch was taken down, the developers had long benefited from what had become a $2 million-per-year scam that went largely unnoticed by Apple moderators until he personally exposed it.

Much harder to spot when it results in $600K a year to Apple
Score: 15 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Bokito Avatar
8 months ago
If you regularly get served ads in games, like Unity ads, you see scams all the time. Usually games that replicate each other, but also other scams like slot games that say you can quickly earn $ 10.000. All these games not only passed Unity's reviews, but also Apple's.

Apple commonly applauds their own curation of the App Store, but there is so much crap these days they should start a big purge.
Score: 14 Votes (Like | Disagree)
SirAnthonyHopkins Avatar
8 months ago

Folks,

I used to play a game app on my iphone called Toon Blast, but recently I noticed a team on it called Bergen Belzen. Now I'm not sure if any of you are aware that this is a blatant copy of the WW2 concentration camp created by the German war machine which murdered thousands. I complained to the game designers who have done bugger all about it. So I complained to Apple who say "we do not control what goes on within the application, the mechanics of the application, or the delivery of the content. Any issues within the app will need to be taken up with the developer of the application". So I think getting Apple to take any action with 'fake apps' is a pipe dream especially when they are getting paid so much!
Though this is bad, it isn't really relevant. There's a huge difference between Apple not policing the behaviour of users within an app – on servers they don't control, in content they have nothing to do with – and removing actual scam apps from its own store.
Score: 11 Votes (Like | Disagree)
dmylrea Avatar
8 months ago
How does a scam app get 80,000 reviews and a 4.5 star average rating? Are they all fake?
Score: 10 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Rogifan Avatar
8 months ago
Several years ago Tim Cook told Wall Street Apple’s goal was to double services revenue. A large portion of services revenue is the 30% Apple gets from the App Store. I’m not surprised scammy apps run rampant on the App Store. Gotta keep these services revenues going up.
Score: 9 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Top Stories

Mac App Store General Feature

Apple's Craig Federighi: Mac Not Meeting the Bar for Customer Protection

Wednesday May 19, 2021 12:41 pm PDT by
Apple software engineering chief Craig Federighi is testifying in the ongoing Apple v. Epic games trial this afternoon, providing details about iPhone security to convince the judge that any change to the App Store policies would be detrimental to iPhone users. Epic Games wants the judge to force Apple to allow multiple app stores on iOS, similar to how it works on Mac, which would allow...
app store safe secure

Study Finds Up to 2% of Top 1,000 Paid Apps on App Store Were Scams

Monday June 7, 2021 6:33 am PDT by
Apple has used its app review process as a bulwark in recent legal assaults on its App Store policy, and put particular emphasis on the security benefits for iOS users when buying apps. However, an investigation has found that almost 2% of the top 1,000 highest grossing apps on a given day were some sort of scam. According to The Washington Post, which conducted the investigation, scam apps...
Apple vs Spotify feature2

Spotify Executive Justifies Antitrust Pressure on Apple and Calls for Other App Store Payment Providers

Tuesday June 1, 2021 9:05 am PDT by
Spotify executive Horacio Gutierrez has explained in a wide-reaching interview with The Verge why the company believes Apple is a "ruthless bully" and what it would like to see change. Last month, Gutierrez penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that chastised Apple and some of its business practices. Now, Spotify's head of global affairs and chief legal officer has expanded on the logic ...
parler app

Parler Returns to the App Store With Improved Moderation

Monday May 17, 2021 7:43 am PDT by
The controversial social media app Parler has today returned to the App Store, several months after Apple suspended it for breach of App Store rules. Parler was removed from the App Store in January because Apple said that it failed to take "adequate measures to address the proliferation" of "threats to people's safety." According to the Washington Post, Parler has now implemented a...
appstore

Apple Apologizes to Developer After Indigenous Language App Wrongly Removed From App Store

Wednesday February 10, 2021 1:58 am PST by
Apple has apologized to the developer of an app meant to promote the Indigenous language Sm'algyax after he was falsely accused of dishonest and fraudulent acts, and as a result, had the app removed from the App Store. Brendan Eshom, a member of the Ts'msyen First Nation community, developed and published "Sm'algyax Word" on both Google Play and the App Store this past July. The app serves...
fortnite apple featured

Apple's Phil Schiller Takes the Stand in Epic Games v. Apple Trial

Monday May 17, 2021 12:17 pm PDT by
Today marked the kickoff of the third week of the Epic Games v. Apple trial, and this week is notable because Epic has finished with its witnesses and we're now transitioning to Apple witnesses, including notable Apple executives. Apple Fellow and former marketing chief Phil Schiller, who is in charge of the App Store, took the stand today. Schiller will testify for up to nine hours, and...
app store blue banner

Apple Highlights How the App Store Prevents Fraud Amid Legal Battle With Epic Games

Tuesday May 11, 2021 10:00 am PDT by
Apple today announced that, through a combination of automated technologies and human review processes, the company protected customers from more than $1.5 billion in potentially fraudulent transactions in 2020. Apple said secure payment technologies like Apple Pay and StoreKit (In-App Purchase) play an essential role in keeping users safe:With online data breaches frustratingly common,...
apple bitcoin app scam

Bitcoin Scam App Approved by Apple Robs iPhone User of $600,000+

Tuesday March 30, 2021 12:30 pm PDT by
A scam bitcoin app that was designed to look like a genuine app was accepted by Apple's App Store review team and ended up costing iPhone user Phillipe Christodoulou 17.1 bitcoin, or upwards of $600,000 at the time of the theft, reports The Washington Post. Christodoulou wanted to check on his bitcoin balance back in February, and searched Apple's App Store for "Trezor," the company that...
app store blue banner

Judge Grills Tim Cook on App Store Policies as End of of Epic Games v. Apple Trial Approaches

Friday May 21, 2021 12:48 pm PDT by
Apple CEO Tim Cook testified in the Epic Games v. Apple trial today, and some of the final questioning by Judge Yvonne Gonzalez-Rogers did not appear to go in Apple's favor. She spent several minutes grilling Cook on Apple's App Store policies and some of the statements that he made. "You said you want to give users control, so what's the problem with allowing users to have a cheaper option...
apple app store page

Apple Exec: We Feature Competitors' Apps 'All The Time' on the App Store

Friday May 7, 2021 5:05 am PDT by
On May 3, the Epic Games vs. Apple trial got underway, and every day, new emails between Apple executives and employees continue to be shared by Epic as evidence for its case against Apple. In the latest batch of emails, the vice president of the App Store, Matt Fischer, claims that Apple features apps made by its competitors "all the time" on the store and rejects the sentiment that it...