84 Fraudulent Apps on the AppStore Still Trick Users Out of More Than $100M Annually

by
Frederik Lipfert
Dr. Frederik Lipfert Founder, vpncheck
Updated on 25 Jul 2022

After more than 15 months in the know, Apple still hasn’t taken the necessary action on these iOS apps scamming its users. Which ones? Here is the list.

Scam apps have been an issue for as long as the App Store has existed. So, since 2008 , it’s still mind boggling that after 14 years the most valuable company in the world doesn’t seem to get a handle on the issue. Why are the brilliant engineers that brought us the iPhone suddenly not capable of coming up with a solution that protects consumers? Well, you might not like the answer.

After all, it might not be in Apple’s interest to address the issue. With the mobile phone market being saturated, the big bucks are increasingly earned in the App Store. And Scam apps are great clients. They obviously make a lot of money through their scams, of which Apple gets its cut. Plus, the App Developers spend a lot of that money on running Ads on the App Store that Apple also gets to pocket. Just like in every casino, in the end the house always wins. Not too shabby, as they like to say at Apple.

In March 2021, Avast shared a list of 133 fraudulent apps for which Sensor Tower estimated a total of 500M  downloads and total revenue of $365M generated by the applications in their lifetime.

Our team at VPNCheck found that over a year later, more than 60% of these reported scam apps are still active on the AppStore. According to our calculations, these apps are scamming users for anywhere north of $100M annually.

It’s almost ridiculous how easy it is to identify these Apps just based on publicly available information. Heck, you just need to read some of the one star reviews on the App Store.  We have no doubt that eventually Apple will get around to solving this issue. It’s just in their best interest for this to take a long, long time.

So, here are the things we looked at.

84 Scam Apps Still Available on Apple’s AppStore

Of late, Apple has been subject to antitrust lawsuits and has come under regulatory scrutiny that will likely rein in its market power and control over the online marketplace. Apple has continually argued against the move for free markets, citing user privacy concerns. If Apple is indeed warding off the endless sea of litigation with the consumer’s best interests at heart, how has a self-appointed AppStore critic, Kosta Elftheriou, uncovered and reported several fraudulent apps that have gone unnoticed by the tech giant? Wink wink, we have an idea why.

Apple’s primary argument for its need to continue to be the gatekeeper, and keep control over app distribution, fails to impress when we take a moment to shine the spotlight on fleeceware apps still running on the AppStore a year after being reported. Fleeceware is any sketchy app designed to defraud end-users by charging excessive subscription fees and is typically difficult to cancel. While these apps don’t attack users and compromise security like ransomware, they do have the same end goal, i.e. money.

Avast shared a list of 133 fraudulent apps in March 2021, and after over a year, in June 2022, 84 of them are still active on the AppStore.

How do we know?

Simple. We just checked. We went through the list shared by Avast and confirmed the details for each app individually in Sensor Tower. We found that for June 2022, the active fleeceware applications had 7.2M unique downloads bringing in total net revenue of $8.6M in a single month. If we make an annual estimation based on the June 2022 figures, we have a $103.2M subscription scam running on the AppStore based solely upon the apps reported by Avast. These numbers don’t account for other scam apps such as AmpMe or StringVPN flagged by Kosta Eleftheriou or other developers, indicating that the issue at hand may very well just be the tip of the iceberg. These issues are even more exacerbated if the are about peoples privacy, which is especially the case with a compromised VPN, like String, if there are great VPNs like Nord VPN available for many devices.

List of active iOS Fleeceware Apps

Here’s a breakdown of the fleeceware apps based on Avast’s list that are still active on the AppStore for the month of June 2022:

App NameAppStore IDDownloads
(May 2022)
Revenue in dollars (May 2022)Max Annual total
(Mar 2021)
URL
Frames - Picture Collage Makerid5364229009$20,000.00$363.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/frames-picture-collage-maker/id536422900
Facelab - Face Editor & Beautyid1361012099400$400,000.00$311.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/facelab-face-editor-beauty/id1361012099
TeasEar: ASMR Slime Antistressid1439312630100$200,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/teasear-asmr-slime-antistress/id1439312630
Nebula: Horoscope & Astrologyid1459969523200$400,000.00$519.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/nebula-horoscope-astrology/id1459969523
Astroline: The Daily Horoscopeid1448364002200$200,000.00$467.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/astroline-daily-horoscope/id1448364002
FLMX - Video Editorid10997187472,5$20,000.00$259.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/flmx-video-editor/id1099718747
Stickerfy: Sticker Makerid14666048532,5$30,000.00$363.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/stickerfy-sticker-maker/id1466604853
Pixomatic - Background eraserid1332651082200$300,000.00$155.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/pixomatic-background-eraser/id1332651082
SpeedPro Slow speed video editid9394217848$20,000.00$155.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/speedpro-slow-speed-video-edit/id939421784
Music Zen - Relaxing Soundsid14355845402,5$40,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/music-zen-relaxing-sounds/id1435584540
Sticker Maker - BeStickyid1457046754100$90,000.00$259.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/sticker-maker-besticky/id1457046754
Photo To Sketch - Drawing bookid42178575950$30,000.00$207.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/photo-to-sketch-drawing-book/id421785759
Mood Balance: Self Care Trackerid1471631164400$300,000.00$363.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/mood-balance-self-care-tracker/id1471631164
Presets for Lightroom - Vidlid149081823150$60,000.00$207.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/presets-for-lightroom-vidl/id1490818231
Jigsaw Puzzle - Brain Gamesid7795225582,5$2,500.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/jigsaw-puzzle-brain-games/id779522558
Lift: Story Makerid1505322988300$600,000.00$259.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/lift-story-maker/id1505322988
Dazzle - Insta stories editorid14660697102,5$30,000.00$119.88https://apps.apple.com/us/app/dazzle-insta-stories-editor/id1466069710
Baby Sticker- Track Milestonesid11224797909$20,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/baby-sticker-track-milestones/id1122479790
Life Palmistry - AI Palm & Tagid1477300670100$50,000.00$467.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/life-palmistry-ai-palm-tag/id1477300670
Photoly Remove Object & Editorid151076268010$90,000.00$467.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/photoly-remove-object-editor/id1510762680
Facetory: Face Yoga & Exerciseid149023868950$200,000.00$519.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/facetory-face-yoga-exercise/id1490238689
VOCHI Video Effects Editorid147789788650$2,500.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/vochi-video-effects-editor/id1477897886
Lucky Life - Future Seerid1477300425100$70,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/lucky-life-future-seer/id1477300425
Dazz Cam- D3D Photo Effectid11383398222,5$2,500.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/dazz-cam-d3d-photo-effect/id1138339822
Beat.ly Music Video Makerid152811217340$50,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/beat-ly-music-video-maker/id1528112173
UltraFX - Effect Video Makerid15194015086$20,000.00$519.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/ultrafx-effect-video-maker/id1519401508
Girl Games: Unicorn Slimeid144822827180$100,000.00$519.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/girl-games-unicorn-slime/id1448228271
Impresso - Insta Story Editorid133059279420$80,000.00$179.88https://apps.apple.com/us/app/impresso-insta-story-editor/id1330592794
PDF Scanner: Document Scanid145025054120$30,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/pdf-scanner-ocr-document-scan/id1450250541
Dizzi - Photo & Video Effectsid1479390854200$100,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/dizzi-video-effects-filters/id1479390854
Hyper Cleaner: Clean Phoneid1514366072200$100,000.00$259.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/hyper-cleaner-phone-cleaning/id1514366072
Highlight Story Cover Maker!id14505983732,5$10,000.00$155.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/highlight-story-cover-maker/id1450598373
Cartoons Me - Photo Art Editorid1528176190100$80,000.00$467.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/cartoons-me-photo-art-editor/id1528176190
Sweet Pics - Baby Photo Editoid14352949292,5$8,000.00$259.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/sweet-pics-baby-photo-editor/id1435294929
Slimy: Anxiety Relief Slime 3Did15225021072,5$6,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/slimy-slime-simulator-games/id1522502107
Frame - Slideshow Video Makerid15232779192,5$9,000.00$259.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/frame-slideshow-video-maker/id1523277919
Auto Sticker Maker Studioid15081296452,5$9,000.00$467.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/auto-sticker-maker-studio/id1508129645
iCons - Icon Changer App +id153394707810$10,000.00$259.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/icons-icon-changer-app/id1533947078
ToonApp Cartoon Photo Editorid1540719743600$400,000.00$259.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/toonapp-cartoon-photo-editor/id1540719743
MagicFX - Magic Video Effectsid15127587092,5$50,000.00$519.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/magic-fx-video-effect-master/id1512758709
Horoscope 2019 and Palm Readerid14501626082,5$7,000.00$519.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/horoscope-2019-and-palm-reader/id1450162608
Handset - Second Phone Numberid13724451492,5$2,500.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/handset-second-phone-number/id1372445149
SlidePic - Slideshow Makerid14567479292,5$2,500.00$259.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/slidepic-slideshow-maker/id1456747929
Astro+ Horoscope & Astrologyid4477096732,5$20,000.00$519.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/horoscope-astrology-astro/id447709673
FaceMe-Fun Personality Testsid14388519032,5$2,500.00$519.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/faceme-fun-personality-tests/id1438851903
Widget PLUS+ - Photo & Weatherd15342972762,5$2,500.00$259.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/widget-plus-photo-calendar/id1534297276
aipic - Magic Photo Editorid14573711622,5$2,500.00$259.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/aipic-magic-photo-editor/id1457371162
Path - Horoscope & Astrologyid14460019572,5$2,500.00$519.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/path-horoscope-astrology/id1446001957
Photo Collage - Collageableid1085652055500$600,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/photo-collage-collageable/id1085652055
Hub - Story Templates Makerid15013666659$20,000.00$207.48https://apps.apple.com/in/app/hub-story-post-templates/id1501366665
iWidget Pro : Custom widgetsid15328642162,5$2,500.00$311.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/widget-pro-custom-widgets/id1532864216
Video Puzzles - Magic Puzzleid14689052102,5$2,500.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/video-puzzles-magic-puzzle/id1468905210
Menu Maker!id15450866766$30,000.00$207.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/menu-maker/id1545086676
edjing Mix - dj appid493226494300$400,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/edjing-mix-dj-app-mixer/id493226494
Guitar - Chords, Tabs & Gamesid42691224390$200,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/guitar-chords-tabs-games/id426912243
Piano - Lessons & Tiles Gamesid69413363080$300,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/piano-lessons-tiles-games/id694133630
WeDrum: Drums, Real Drum Gamesid474286241100$100,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/wedrum-drum-games-real-drums/id474286241
Metronome - Tap Tempo & Rhythmid55979817240$100,000.00$519.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/metronome-tap-tempo-rhythm/id559798172
Guitar Tuner - Ukulele & Bassid66289045540$100,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/guitar-tuner-ukulele-bass/id662890455
Guitar - real games & lessonsid1365011081100$80,000.00$493.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/guitar-real-games-lessons/id1365011081
Drums: Play Beats & Drum Gamesid1381436705100$60,000.00$493.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/drums-play-beats-drum-games/id1381436705
Beat maker pro - DJ Drum Padid1362013798600$200,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/beat-maker-pro-dj-drum-pad/id1362013798
Karaoke Songs - Voice Singingid1235472374100$200,000.00$519.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/karaoke-songs-voice-singing/id1235472374
Piano Crush - Keyboard Gamesid139233861780$90,000.00$519.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/piano-crush-keyboard-games/id1392338617
edjing Pro - music remix makerid102200000110$20,000.00$519.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/edjing-pro-music-remix-maker/id1022000001
DJ it! - Music Mixer Padid1470224073100$200,000.00$519.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/dj-it-music-mixer-virtual-pad/id1470224073
Jambl: DJ Band & Beat Makerid112582653480$100,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/jambl-dj-band-beat-maker/id1125826534
Guitar Play - Games & Songsid13882747322,5$10,000.00$519.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/guitar-play-games-songs/id1388274732
Memoristo: Brain Test, IQ Gameid14771995702,5$2,500.00$519.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/memoristo-brain-test-iq-game/id1477199570
Loop Maker Pro - Music Makerid15152514007$20,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/loop-maker-pro-music-maker/id1515251400
Metronome Pro - Beat & Tempoid143976724530$60,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/metronome-pro-beat-tempo/id1439767245
Equalizer+ HD music playerid777191669100$100,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/equalizer-hd-music-player/id777191669
Bass Booster Volume Power Ampid927920917100$80,000.00$467.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/bass-booster-volume-power-amp/id927920917
Equalizer Fx: Bass Booster Appid108422834060$20,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/equalizer-fx-bass-booster/id1084228340
ScanGuru: PDF Document Scannerid1040149161600$1,000,000.00$363.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/scanguru-pro-pdf-scanner-app/id1040149161
Drink Water ∙ Daily Reminderid105621001140$20,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/drink-water-daily-reminder/id1056210011
Password Manager - Lock Appsid146451309070$40,000.00$467.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/password-manager-safe-lock/id1464513090
Live Wallpaper Maker: 4K Themeid146276376230$10,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/live-wallpaper-maker-4k-theme/id1462763762
RECOLLECT: Color by Numberid13648426642,5$2,500.00$311.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/recollect-color-by-number/id1364842664
Avatar Maker Character Creatorid14591198127$100,000.00$259.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/avatar-maker-character-creator/id1459119812
Translator Guru: Voice & Textid145810479480$100,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/translator-guru-voice-text/id1458104794
Ringtones HD ∙ Ringtone Makerid146828279220$20,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/ringtones-hd-ringtone-maker/id1468282792
Scanner App ∙ Scan & Sign PDFid145014483250$70,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/scanner-scan-edit-sign-pdf/id1450144832
Translate Camera - Speak Onid14031690422,5$30,000.00$415.48https://apps.apple.com/us/app/translate-camera-speak-on/id1403169042
Total7,206,000$8,621,500.00
Active Fleeceware Apps on iOS from Avast’s report dated 23-03-2021*

The data is a quick Google search away and readily available for anyone who would care to take down fraudulent apps. Apple dragging its feet despite having a team dedicated to reviewing apps is quite telling, particularly after individual developers have pointed out several scams and Avast’s curated and published its list of fleeceware apps.

It should be noted that Apple has implemented some rudimentary controls for reporting a scam app using the ‘Report a Problem’ button. But how is this useful, if they don’t act on the information their users submit?

Apple’s Motive: Coins or Consumers?

Let’s take a look at Apple’s earnings from the AppStore and its overall profitability.

  • Apple’s Commission: Apple takes a 30% cut in sales from developers. Due to a policy change, app makers can now talk to their customers about direct buying options that will not be subject to Apple commissions. Last year, Apple also reduced the commission rates to 15% for businesses making under $1M annually, presumably after tasting regulatory scrutiny and pressure from app makers (thank you, Epic?).
  • Apple’s Search Ads: Apple is ever expanding its advertising business. Which is reported to now be at almost $4B a year
  • AppStore Profitability: Despite these antitrust lawsuits, we can only hazard a guess at the profitability derived from AppStore as Apple has been evasive about its profit margins. Yet, if their resistance to comply is any indication, the profits derived would probably be a significant number.

The fact remains that these policy changes were introduced in response to lawsuits and were not addressed preemptively from the perspective of end-users and developers who formed the core of the AppStore ecosystem. But with regulation getting tighter, Apple seems to care more about its own bottom line than actually protecting its users.

The Anatomy of a Scam

So, while it is clear that fleeceware apps dupe us out of our money, how do we spot one? Let’s dive into the telltale signs of a fraudulent app.

  1. App genre: Most scam apps fall under the category of entertainment apps such as virtual musical instruments or utilities such as flashlights and calculators. Fleeceware apps can pop up in your searches if you’re in the market for apps related to fortune-telling, photo or video filters or editors, quiz-based games, tuners, volume boosters, scanners, templates or wallpapers. While these are the more common themes, there’s nothing to stop scam app makers from branching out to other domains.
  2. Fake reviews: This one is fairly easy to spot. The rating breakdown typically has a great many paid 5-star reviews with bogus reviewer names over a specific period that hides the legitimate lower-rated reviews.

Figure 1: Rating Breakdown of a Fleeceware App

Untitled

Figure 2: 5-Star Reviews of a Fleeceware App

Untitled

Figure 3: Lower Rated Reviews of a Fleeceware App

  1. Excessive subscription charges: Fleeceware apps often come with hidden costs and a free trial period for a fairly basic app that you could likely get for free. Users may be billed multiple times or charged a higher amount at checkout. It is much harder to unsubscribe from its services, and unsuspecting victims are often billed even after uninstalling the app.

If you want to know more, Kosta Eleftheriou has a fascinating Twitter thread exploring how sketchy apps make money.

Home Remedies for Fleece Burns

It is one of those scenarios where the old adage “prevention is better than cure” rings ominously true. Researching for free alternatives and reading the 1-star reviews is a good place to start before subscribing to any app. More often than not, fleeceware apps tend to have words like fake, scam, fraud app, and several complaints around subscriptions in their user reviews. Additionally, don’t fall for false advertisements that state the app is recommended by Apple, as in the case of StringVPN, another scam app uncovered by Kosta Eleftheriou.

However, if you have fallen victim to this scam and all your attempts to unsubscribe have failed, you should reach out to your bank and ask them to stop processing any payment requests made by the fraudulent app. That’s an easier option compared to canceling and requesting the bank to re-issue the card with a new card number.

Wrapping Up

It’s a shame that the most valuable company in the world isn’t addressing these issues. There might be many reasons for it but “we can’t figure out how” is probably not it. If developers like Kosta Eleftheriou or researchers at Avast can figure it out, Apple could as well. The truth is, they just don’t really care because it makes them a lot of money. According to Apple CEO Tim Cook, 100,000 applications are being reviewed in any given week, and forty thousand of them get rejected. And still there remain Apps on the Store pointed out by many folks that Apple just can’t get a handle on. Strange times indeed.

We’ll check back on this in 12 months and report if Apple in the meantime found it necessary to address the presence of these apps on the AppStore.

*Note: For every app that SensorTower estimates as <5k in downloads and revenue, we’ve taken 2,500 as an estimate.