Technology

Builders complain that Apple is selling fraudulent apps within the App Retailer

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Enlarge / The front of the iPhone 12.

Samuel Axon

Developers are once again publicly highlighting cases in which Apple failed to remove fraudulent apps from the App Store. The apps in question charge users abnormally and derive revenue from legitimate or higher quality apps. While Apple had previously come under fire for failing to block apps like this one from being published, developers complained this week that Apple is in fact actively promoting some of these apps.

Apple’s Australian App Store published a story called “Slime Tension” which highlighted a specific category of apps. However, according to some developers and observers, some of these apps have very high subscription fees even though they don’t offer many features.

Take an app with the awkward nickname “Jelly: Slime Simulator, ASMR” for example. Unless the users log in, the app will be filled with ads. it plays more than one in a row before the user can interact with it in any meaningful way. A report by MacRumors said the app “offers a subscription of $ 13 a week” to remove these ads. (When we downloaded the app ourselves, we were asked to subscribe for almost half that for $ 7.99 per week. It’s unclear to us if prices have changed since the first reports or if it’s a regional price difference .)

In both cases, Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines, as MacRumors also emphasized, explicitly state that Apple “will reject expensive apps that try to cheat users with irrationally high prices”. This is of course subjective and open to interpretation, but some developers argue that this app and others featured in the “Slime Tensions” story cross that line.

These are not new problems. Back in February, developer Kosta Eleftheriou pointed out a scam app for the Apple Watch that was supported by fake reviews. Apple removed the offensive app after Eleftheriou’s observations became widespread on Twitter and in the media. But Eleftheriou and other developers identified even more fraudulent apps.

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Apple defended its efforts to keep fraudulent apps off the App Store in a statement to The Verge as the press covered Eleftherious’s findings:

We take feedback on fraudulent activity seriously and investigate every report and take action. The App Store is meant to be a safe and trustworthy place for users to get apps and a great opportunity for developers to thrive. We do not tolerate any fraudulent activity on the App Store and have strict rules against apps and developers who try to defraud the system. In 2020 alone, we canceled 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 is actively working to eliminate these types of violations, constantly improving its process.

Apple continues to play whack-a-mole with these apps, but various developers have complained both publicly and privately that the company is taking too long. A developer we emailed with claimed that it took Apple 10 days to remove the app when they discovered a fraudulent app that was stealing assets from its own legitimate app that was clearly designed to keep users out to remove the real app while Google only “1-2 days” on the Android side. The app was re-approved in the Apple App Store after the stolen assets were removed. During the long wait, the developer of the legitimate app lost a significant amount of users and revenue, while the developer of the illegal app profited.

With Apple waging legal battles to prevent third-party app stores from getting to iOS because these alternative app stores may be less secure than their own, claims by developers that fraudulent apps are leaking through may undermine Apple’s defenses. The company has a huge incentive to stop the scam apps and the will seems to be there. But the processes Apple is using to achieve this goal seem far from perfect, and hence both users and legitimate developers are at risk.

Given what is at stake for Apple in solving this problem, it’s hard to imagine that the examples developers have discovered are instances of malice rather than incompetence. However, the consequences can often be the same for developers and users.

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