Apple Is Cracking Down on ‘Rip-off’ Apps

Using iPhone to Load Apps Credit: N.Z. Photography / Shutterstock
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It looks like Apple has upped the ante in its ongoing fight against scam apps in the App Store, with the review team now specifically hunting down apps that charge prices for in-app subscriptions that are considered unreasonable.

As we highlighted earlier this month, one of the most common methods that scammers use to try to make money off unsuspecting iPhone users is to release seemingly legitimate apps — often ones that blatantly copy the hard work of the developers — and then try to trick users into signing up for in-app subscriptions that can easily amount to hundreds of dollars a year.

We’ve seen many of these scams over the years, but they also seem to be somewhat cynical; they die off as Apple finds ways to crack down on scams, but then resurface again once scammers find a new way to slip their apps in past Apple’s App Store review team.

Although Apple tried to address this issue a couple of years ago by forcing developers to be much more clear and transparent about their subscription terms, it looks like either Apple’s team has fallen asleep at the helm in recent months, or scammers have found some way to slip much more cryptic in-app subscriptions past Apple’s reviewers.

For example, in one recent case, the fake app in question presented nothing more than an “Unlock Now” button, which would immediately take the user to the standard purchasing screen, where they’d be charged $7.99 per week for an ongoing subscription — an amount that would work out to almost $416 over the course of a year if the user wasn’t paying attention to recurring credit card charges.

The worst part of this, of course, isn’t just the expensive weekly subscription fee, but the fact that the user is getting nothing at all for their money.

The subscription is paid to unlock featured that don’t actually exist within the app, since it’s ultimately just a shell designed to look good on the front so that users will be duped into signing up for the recurring subscription — something that many may not even realize they’ve done until they get charged again a week later.

‘Irrationally High’ Prices

Now it looks like Apple is taking more of a hard-line approach to try and combat these apps, ferreting out those that seem to charge disproportionate amounts of money for the features and content that they offer.

As 9to5Mac reports, at least one legitimate developer has gotten caught up in Apple’s new dragnet, offering us some insight into what Apple’s App Store review team is up to, and it turns out they’re being pretty blunt about it.

In a rejection letter sent to the developer, Apple went so far as to accuse the app of charging “irrationally high prices” and ripping off customers, stating that such apps are not appropriate for the App Store.

Unfortunately, the prices you’ve selected for your app or in-app purchase products in your app do not reflect the value of the features and content offered to the user. Charging irrationally high prices for content or services with limited value is a rip-off to customers and is not appropriate for the App Store.

App Store rejection letter (via 9to5Mac)

While Apple’s letter wasn’t a final rejection, it did indicate that the app would not be considered unless the developer provided more value to the user at the time of purchase, or reduced the price to better reflect what the app was offering. It also notes that the next submission would require a longer review time as Apple’s team would need to scrutinize it more carefully.

The App Store review team did make a mistake in the case of this particular app, however, since the app requires the use of a costly API that the developers have to pay for to offer its functionality, and the good news is that the issue was resolved and the app approved after the developer worked with the App Store review team to explain this.

Naturally, however, scam apps would have a much more difficult time justifying why they’re charging hundreds of dollars a year for… well, nothing at all, really.

There’s already been a policy in the App Store Review Guidelines for years that specifically prohibit apps that “are clear rip-offs” and “try to cheat users with irrationally high prices,” and it’s clear that Apple’s rejection note was using this same language.

While pricing is up to you, we won’t distribute apps and in-app purchase items that are clear rip-offs. We’ll reject expensive apps that try to cheat users with irrationally high prices.

App Store Review Guidelines

However, it doesn’t seem that it’s been as aggressively enforced by the App Store review team until recently. A search through the Apple Developer Forums shows at least one incident of this from last fall, but not much before that. Of course, it’s also fair to say that scammers aren’t likely complaining very loudly about these kinds of rejections — they’re much more likely to just disappear and eventually try and resurface under a completely different identity.

Apps should never prey on users or attempt to rip-off customers, trick them into making unwanted purchases, force them to share unnecessary data, raise prices in a tricky manner, charge for features or content that are not delivered, or engage in any other manipulative practices within or outside of the app.

App Store Review Guidelines

While it’s good to see Apple cracking down a bit more tightly on these kinds of apps, it’s still a challenge to police the millions of apps that are available on the App Store, so we recommend following a few easy steps to be on your guard against scams in the first place, as well as how to cancel subscriptions and request refunds in the event that you’ve been caught by one.

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