Apple App Store’s “Walled Garden” Overrun With Weeds

By CARL V. LEWIS

In 1894, advertisers claimed snake oil could cure “all aches and pains.” But by the time you realized it didn’t, it was too late. Your money was gone.

 

It’s a predicament similar to the one facing thousands of customers at Apple’s iTunes App Store, where unscrupulous app developers often lure unsuspecting consumers into buying misleading, knockoff and even downright scam apps for their iPhones and iPads. To make matters worse, Apple offers no guaranteed refund policy for app-store purchases, often leaving the consumer stuck with a flawed or bogus product and with only the bill to pay for it.

For just $12.99, you can get an app that magically heals warts!

Despite the fact that Apple bans apps that contain foul language, the company has approved dozens of dubious and often blatant scam apps in the four years since it opened. Many of these apps have made unrealistic, if not impossible, claims to health, beauty and emotional wellbeing. Take the $1.99 ‘AcneApp,’  for example, which – before the Federal Trade Commission ordered that Apple remove it from the marketplace in 2010 – sold 11,600 downloads with the promise to remove zits by projecting blue and red light onto the face. Or there’s the ‘Wart Healer‘ app, which, at a price tag of $12.99, claimed  “to provide wart removal via mental healing,” according to its description in the iTunes store. It was removed in early 2011 after the blog Gizmodo posted about it.

Other apps Apple has approved for sale and subsequently pulled from market after pubshback include the 99-cent app called Baby Shaker, which simulated the violent shaking of an infant, as well as the app ‘Less Cigarette!,‘ which claimed to help smokers ditch their tobacco habit by changing the taste of cigarettes using different colored lights.

To be fair, Apple has removed most of these bogus applications in a swift manner after coming under fire from the blogosphere. But in some cases, the worst scamming took place before the apps were removed, costing not only the consumer, but tarnishing the integrity of the entire App Store.

On Feb. 20, 2012, the fake Pokemon Yellow app was the second-highest grossing paid app in the entire App Store.

Take the case of the Pokemon Yellow app released in the App Store in mid-February. Upon its launch, the app ignited widespread fervor among fans of the popular Nintendo-owned Pokemon franchise. Within three days, the app skyrocketed to the top of the charts, selling more than 2,000 copies at 99 cents a pop and earning its developers more than $10,000 in profits. At its peak, Pokemon Yellow ranked as the second most popular paid-app in the entire 750,000-strong iTunes app marketplace, just behind the iconic ‘Grand Theft Auto’ game and four spots ahead of ‘Angry Birds.’

But it didn’t take long for users to figure out that something wasn’t quite right about Pokemon Yellow. Despite the vast array of glowing five-start reviews suggesting otherwise, more than 1,500 users complained that the app  would only load one picture, then crash.

As it turns out, the app was a fake – an unusable knock-off of the real thing which duped thousands of loyal Pokeman fans into buying what they were led to believe was the genuine brand-name game. The app wasn’t even made by Pokemon’s copyright holder, Nintendo, but instead by a shady development company called House of Anime, which blatantly misrepresented its product and infringed on copyright laws.

Yet it was only after the popular gaming blog ArsTechnica blew the whistle on the fake Pokemon Yelllow app on February 19 –– causing the story to go viral –– that Apple took any action to remove the app from the store.

When Apple first launched the App Store in 2008, CEO Steve Jobs promised consumers the store would uphold a “walled-garden policy” in which Apple would screen all third-party apps before they made their way into the marketplace. No profanity, no pornography and no copyright infringements would be allowed to be distributed through the hallowed App Store gates, and no app would be given the green light without rigorous review and inspection by Apple developers and product testers.

But what began as a walled garden has now become overrun with weeds, with hundreds of flimsy, fraudulent and full-blown scam apps sprouting up in the iTunes store in 2011 and early 2012.

“Recently there’s been a dramatic rise in the number of fraudulent apps getting attention – even top sales positions – in the iPhone and iPad store,” wrote iMore Editor-in-Chief Rene Ritchie in February. “For consumers, it’s just one more hurdle face when trying to find the good apps.”

While outcry from the FTC, consumer advocacy groups and an army of indignant bloggers like Ritchie has led Apple to ban many fraudulent applications, scam-like apps continue to exist in various, but less obvious, forms today.

Dozens of apps in the App Store claim to do one thing, yet deliver another. Despite repeated efforts by Apple to purge the store of ripoff apps, dozens still exist today, with app developers continuously figuring out ways to game the system by artificially boosting product ratings.

Here are five of the most egregious apps we found that are currently in the App Store:

1. Microsoft Word 2010 – Mastering in 24h (view)

As you can see here, the reference guide apps from FutureMedia look like the actual applications on an iPhone screen.

Looking to download a copy of Microsoft Word on your device so you can edit on-the-go? If so, don’t be fooled into shelling out $11.99 for this app that appears at first glance to be a functional copy of Word 2010, bearing the Office 2010 and Microsoft Word logos in its iconography. We downloaded this app to give it a whirl, only to find out that it’s merely a 20-page guidebook of free tips and instructions on how to use Microsoft Word, not an actual installation of the popular word-processing software.

The developers may try to claim that this app falls under appropriate App Store guidelines, as it includes the phrase “Mastering in 24h” at the end of its title in an apparent, albeit feeble, attempt to indicate that it’s a reference app only. But on an iPhone 4S screen, that part of the title gets chopped off, and can only be seen after the jump. Seeing the familiar Word logo and the title ‘Microsoft Word 2010’ would likely be enough for many users to click ‘Buy Now’ on the item without even bothering to click through to see the product specifications on the next page. And judging by the product reviews, at least 231 customers have fallen for the trick, and then giving the product the lowest-possible rating of one star to warn others (that number only counts the customers who actually took the time to write a review, not the total number). One reviewer, Pdubz23457, framed the app’s tactics fairly eloquently: “No one would buy this unless they thought it was Word. This company is taking advantage of how fast paced people are today.”

FutureMedia sells similarly deceptive “reference” guides to other popular software.

According to information from the iTunes store, the company that sells the Microsoft Word 2010 app, FutureMedia Studio, offers similar reference apps for programs including Microsoft Excel 2010 ($11.99), Adobe Photoshop CS5 ($14.99) and Microsoft Office 2010 ($22.99). All three of these apps, too, use the same deceptive tactics and product logos to give off the appearance that they are actual copies of the software at hand. One customer, Jewiz B., bought both the Word and Excel apps at the same time, and was incensed to find out they were only guidebooks: “I just wasted $26 because I thought this was Word AND I bought Excel.”

Scott Ruben, an app developer who hosts a daily webcast called “App-a-Day,” said that Apple’s “one-click” purchasing system makes consumers particularly vulnerable to scams such as this, which aren’t technically lying but present themselves in a misleading context.

“Because it’s only one click away, it’s so easy for someone to say, you know what, I’m going to try it,” Ruben said.

But if apps such as these from FutureMedia are so obviously worthless, then why do all four of them have such a large amount of five star ratings? And how do they end up so high in search rankings? The answer is simple: The company selling the apps sets aside a large amount of money to buy separate copies of their own app, so that they can then leave five-star reviews that bump the app up in the rankings. This allows the apps to go relatively undetected by Apple. According to Apple’s guidelines for developers, this tactic is a clear violation of App Store rules: ““If you attempt to cheat the system (for example, by trying to trick the review process, steal data from users, copy another developer’s work, or manipulate the ratings) your apps will be removed from the store and you will be expelled from the developer program.”  However, Apple hasn’t bothered to remove any of FutureMedia’s apps, despite the barrage of one-star ratings from disgruntled customers that should tip Apple developers off.

After purchasing the bogus Word 2010 app, we placed a refund request with Apple (we’ll explain how you can do that, too, later in this post) to see if we could recoup our losses. It’s been five business days now, and so far we’ve yet to hear back from Apple. We also visited FutureMedia’s website, which makes no mention of any of the apps in question and provided no contact information except for a form. Using the contact form, we made the following request for a refund using the company’s contact form:

 

Dear FutureMedia,

I recently purchased your product “Microsoft Word 2010 – Mastering in 24h,” thinking it was a copy of the actual MS Word processing program. It was not made clear in Apple’s App Store description that this product was only a reference guide, and the marketing was misleading. As such, I’d like to request a refund. If you could, please get in touch with me as soon as possible.

-Carl V. Lewis

 

That message was sent on Thursday, April 31. We’ve yet to hear anything back from the company.

2.  LockScreen (see)

At just $1.99, the Lock Screen app promises, well, to lock your screen. There’s just one little problem with it, however: it doesn’t actually lock anything. In its description, the app promises an array of impressive security features such as “voice recognition,” “fingerprint scan” and “Android-like ‘connect-the-dots’ security” to “keep your data private and secure.”  But upon purchasing the app, you find out that it’s actually a collection of poorly-designed background wallpapers with designs that only pretend to lock your screen. “They’re just ripping you off. It’s a picture, not a lock. It does nothing at all to lock your iPhone,” posted one reviewer, Greg, from California.

The huge disparity between five-star and one-star ratings reflects the developer’s gaming of the system with purchased reviews.

The app has received 41 customer ratings –– 22 of those ratings give the app glowing five-star reviews, while the remaining 19 of them call the scam out with the lowest possible one star-rating.  Another scorned reviewer, Mikeywhatsgood, said: “I can’t believe the App Store would even allow this app to be available to buy.” But because the app has been artificially boosted by so many scam five-star ratings, it has an average rating of three stars, once again allowing it to go largely undetected by Apple and remain available for purchase by unsuspecting consumers.

The company that sells the app, Fox Mobile, did not appear in Google search results, and had no traces online of its existence. According to the iTunes store, the company sells two other apps –– one called ‘Lockitizer’ that is an exact duplicate of LockScreen except under a different name, and another called ‘Live Themes’ that promises to jazz up your phone with custom wallpapers.

An earlier version of the LockScreen app was released in March under the title “LockYourScreen” and for a short period sat among the top 10 paid-apps list. But the app was pulled from the store in late April after receiving more than 1,000 abysmal one-star ratings from angered customers. It didn’t take the makers of the app long, however, to sneak the scam app back into the store under a different titlel Just eight days later, on May 3, ‘LockScreen’ was released in the store, where it remains today.

3. Anger Birds (see)

Yet another in a line of Angry Birds copycats

Sounds familiar, right? Well, that’s because it’s one of the multitude of copycat apps of the most popular iPhone game to date, Angry Birds. Most of the past copycat apps (Angry Ninja Birds, Cut the Birds, etc.) have already been banned at the request of Rovio Mobile, the creators of Angry Birds. For the same 99 cents as Angry Birds, this app has an almost identical-looking icon and color-scheme,, but is nowhere nearly as high a quality of a game. We tested it out to see how similar the game play was to its name-brand counterpart. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as fun as Angry Birds, with a low-resolution user-interface and an unclear game mission. In fact, Anger Birds is so bad that even its copycatting efforts haven’t helped it gain much steam. So far, it’s only received six reviews, with four of them giving one-star ratings. But at least one consumer has fallen for Anger Birds’ tricks.  Don, a reviewer who gave the app a one-star rating, said: “I think the developer has deceptively named their app to trick people into purchasing it. Well, it worked on my son. He purchased this when he really wanted Angry Birds. Shame on you.”

4. iGrow Male Enhancement (see)

The first two lines of this app’s description says perhaps all that need to be said: “ACHIEVE AN INCREASE IN SIZE IN 2 WEEKS!! NO BLUE PILLS…….NO COMMERCIALS.” For just $4.99, male consumers can get “REAL RESULTS”  that will “vastly enhance your male performance,” and are “as good as taking a Viagra.” What’s more, the image attached to the app’s description claims the app will “Add 1-4 inches to your PENIS” with a 100 percent guaranteed stamp.

To evaluate iGrow’s rather bold marketing claims, we downloaded the app to see how it operated. Not surprisingly, all the app contained was a few lines of text that spouted off common-sense tips that anyone could easily find on Google. Nothing within the app itself provided any actual mechanism to increase male stamina.

5. WartRemoval (see)

Another wart removal app has cropped up in the iTunes App Store, although this time with slightly more legitimacy as it doesn’t explicitly claim to remove warts, only to give tips “to helping you get rid of that ugly stubborn wart that just won’t go away.” Once again, though, the actual content of the app is nothing unique that couldn’t be found through a simple Google search. And at $2.99, this app carries a hefty price to pay for a simple list of do-it-yourself tips.

What’s particularly troubling is that both the iGrow and War Removal apps are listen in the “Medical” category on the iTunes store. Unless the app is providing actual medical services, such as measuring heart rate or allowing you to communicate to a real doctor, these apps are technically not ‘medically’ valid.

“As far as these spps claiming to help your health, the technology is just not there yet.” says Dr. Matthew Keefer, a physician and app developer at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. “Bottom line: We cannot remove warts by our phones. We cannot increase penis size from an iPhone. So, if you’re hoping to get these things, see a doctor. Don’t spend your money thinking an app will do this for you, it won’t.”

But despite the lack of science behind such apps, some naive consumers are still willing to fork over money for them, whether they know they’re being ripped off or not.

“If people are willing to buy these apps, app developers will create them,” Ruben said.  “Just as there are people scamming you in the real world, there are people scamming you in the app world. The difference is, as an app user, you really can’t go back into the store and yell at the manager.” In the app world, developers can hide behind their laptops.

“My advice is to know what you’re getting into, beforehand. Read the reviews, read the comments, every single time that’s the key right now.” Ruben said.

Getting back your money (or at least trying)

Now what? Apple seemingly does its best to make the App Store refund procedure a bit of a mystery. Here is a find a step-by-step guide on how to request a refund for an app that wasn’t quite what you expected. But even if you take the proper steps, there’s no guarantee you’ll get your money back. In fact, we tried submitting a refund request with Apple for the $11.99 purchase of the fake ‘Microsoft Word 2010’ app one week ago, and we’ve yet to hear back, let alone receive a refund.

  1. Open the iTunes Application on your computer.
  2. Open the iTunes tab, located in the left-hand column of iTunes.
  3. Next click the arrow next to your username (email address) on the top right and select ‘Account’.
     
  4. Scroll down to ‘Purchase History’ and click ‘See All’.
     
  5. Find the iTunes invoice with the application you would like a refund for. Click Report a problem.
     
  6. Fill out the form that follows and be sure to be as detailed as possible. Click Next when finished.
  7. That’s it. Once your request is submitted, you’ll have to wait for Apple to get back to you.

What about Androids?

It used to be that you had 24-hours in the Android App store to evaluate an App and request a refund if you weren’t satisfied. In December of 2010, Google changed the policy – you better act quickly. Now, you only have 15 minute from the time the App is downloaded to request a full refund.

But, the good news is, if you’re using a DROID phone, your chances of getting a refund for unsatisfactory App might be a little higher. If you request a refund in that 15-minute window, Google says it will return your money in a 48-hour window.

If you downloaded an App within the past few minutes, hurry up and:

  1. Launch the Android Market app on your phone.
  2. Press your phone’s Menu button.
  3. Touch the My apps option.
  4. Touch the app you want to “return.”
  5. Touch the Uninstall & Refund button. This is important. If you only have an Uninstall button and don’t see the & Refund part, either this was a free app or your 15 minutes has already expired.

Confirm that you want a refund, your app will be uninstalled, and you’ll receive your refund. If you’ve missed the 15 minute window, Google suggests that you contact the vendor directly. Just know that the vendor isn’t under any obligation to give you a refund.

UPDATE, Fri., May 18, 2012: It’s been more than three weeks since we submitted a refund request from Apple. We’ve still heard nothing.