Johnny Lin:

I scrolled down the list in the Productivity category and saw apps from well-known companies like Dropbox, Evernote, and Microsoft. That was to be expected. But what’s this? The #10 Top Grossing Productivity app (as of June 7th, 2017) was an app called “Mobile protection :Clean & Security VPN”. Given the terrible title of this app (inconsistent capitalization, misplaced colon, and grammatically nonsensical “Clean & Security VPN?”), I was sure this was a bug in the rankings algorithm. So I check Sensor Tower for an estimate of the app’s revenue, which showed… $80,000 per month?? That couldn’t possibly be right. Now I was really curious. I tap into the app details to see that the developer is “Ngan Vo Thi Thuy”. Wait so, this is a VPN service offered by an independent developer who didn’t even bother to incorporate a company? That’s a huge red flag.

Spoilers: it’s a scammy app asking people for a weekly subscription at $99.99, with a one-week “free trial”. Inexperienced users who don’t known how to cancel subscriptions (or just those who forget about them after the free 7 days) will fall for it. And if just a tiny percentage of the users fall for it, it’s a huge win for the scammers. Read the rest of the article, it’s worth it.

I checked to see if this app is also found on the German App Store, and it’s not. It’s not on the US App Store either, so Apple apparently has already taken it down. However there’s an app called “Mobile Protection – Total Clean & Security VPN” by a company called Ancor Software, LLC. Looks like the scammer was piggy-backing on this (legitimate) app. However from experience I can say that app like these don’t seem to show up in the top grossing charts in Germany.

Turns out, scammers are abusing Apple’s relatively new and immature App Store Search Ads product. They’re taking advantage of the fact that there’s no filtering or approval process for ads, and that ads look almost indistinguishable from real results, and some ads take up the entire search result’s first page.

This is likely the reason why this doesn’t seem to happen on the German App Store, at least not at the same scale. There are no search ads here yet, so the 200 Top Grossing apps consist almost completely out of pay-to-win games, dating apps and a few outliers (Things 3, for example, some fitness apps, some navigation apps). The same goes for the Paid and Free Top Charts–no obviously scammy apps, if you don’t include pay-to-win games.

In cases like this, you can help by reporting the scam app. If you have an iTunes Connect account, go to the Contact us form, select “Feedback and Concerns” and “Report a Fraud Concern”.