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Fake apps: a growing risk to consumers

Posted by Emma Smith on Wednesday, Nov 16, 2016

While more consumers will shop online to avoid the stresses this Christmas, hundreds of fake retail apps could leave them not just disappointed, but at risk of malware attacks.

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In recent weeks iPhone users have been faced with an increasing numbers of counterfeit retail and product apps. Some of these fake product apps merely aim to confuse users and cause annoying pop-up ads while generating advert revenue but there are also those more harmful counterfeit apps which extract personal information, without the user's knowledge, from social media accounts or through software bugs.

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The fake retail apps, however, are the ones posing the biggest threat to consumers this holiday season. As the New York Times reports, more fake retail apps means more users are at risk of financial fraud upon handing over their credit card details. Discount stores, retails chains such as Dollar and Footlocker, and some of the biggest brands in fashion including New Balance, Ugg and Jimmy Choo have already found themselves the victims of counterfeit apps.

Apple's response to the issue with App Store

Apple has always boasted of having superior security measures than its Android competitor and its App Store Review Guidelines state that the use of unlicensed content will be removed - this includes attempts to create apps which are ‘confusingly similar’ to existing Apple products, interface or apps and intentional use of misspellings. However, in practice Apple focuses more on blocking malicious software and does not routinely examine the thousands of apps submitted to iTunes everyday or look specifically for cases of trademark infringement. Earlier this year app developers celebrated that Apple had shortened the app review time but, while this shorter review process may have made Apple more ‘developer friendly’ as the app review process now takes about two days instead of nine, Apple are unable to keep up the hundreds of new fake apps sneaking through every day.

Most of the fake apps originate from China and in some cases developers can change the content, names and credentials of the app after approval. There is also evidence to suggest that fake apps are taking advantage of Apple’s new paid search ads and buying search terms to increase their exposure.

In September, Apple launched a campaign to review all two million apps in the App Store and remove those which didn’t comply with their current review guidelines. But after reports of a surge of fake apps targeting holiday shoppers, just last week they had to remove hundreds more fake apps. An Apple spokesman, Tony Neumayr, told the New York Times:

“We’ve set up ways for customers and developers to flag fraudulent or suspicions apps, which we promptly investigate to ensure the App Store is safe and secure. We’ve removed these offending apps and will continue to vigilant about looking for apps that might put users at risk.”

How fake apps are getting away with it

Some counterfeit apps take advantage of brands which do not have an official presence on the App store, such as retail chain Dollar Tree or Dillards, meaning shoppers can be easily lured in by fake apps. Others deceive consumers by mimicking existing shopping apps, such as an app called Footlocke Sports Co that posed as Foot Locker Inc which already has three iPhone apps, or another called Overstock Inc which sold counterfeit Ugg boots by impersonating the well-known retailer overstock.com. In this case, the company which had developed the fake app had not investigated or verified their clients but simply said they had "hoped" they were the official sellers.


Conclusion

While it is difficult to identify fake apps, users should be on the lookout for warning signals such as bizarre and poorly written menus, no evidence of previous versions or reviews and misspellings of brand names. Ben Reubenstein, chief executive of Possible Mobile which develops apps for several companies, says that as apps become a more popular way to shop, it is up to the brands and developers to report fake sites. “It is important that brands monitor how their name is being used,” he added.

Brand protection services are aware of the changes in the industry and the growing number of platforms which allow for the trading of counterfeits, such as buying and selling through WhatsApp, but with new fake apps appearing everyday it looks like this will be one of the biggest threats to consumers and brands this holiday season.

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About the author

Emma Smith

Post Written by Emma Smith

Emma is a professional writer working with Red Points, researching and creating high-quality content. She is a trained investigative journalist with a special interest in tech and global affairs. Emma graduated from University College of Dublin with an MA hons in Media and International Conflict, and has a BA hons in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University