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.

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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
20 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
20 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
20 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
20 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
20 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
20 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)

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