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Developers again publicly point to cases where Apple has failed to keep scam apps out of the app store. The apps in question charge users unusual fees and transfer revenue from legitimate or higher quality apps. While Apple has previously come under fire for not blocking such apps, developers complained this week that Apple was actually actively promoting some of these apps.
Apple’s Australian App Store published a story called “Slime Relaxations” highlighting a particular category of apps. But according to for some developers and observers, some of those apps have very high subscription costs, despite not offering much functionality.
Take, for example, an app with the cumbersome name “Jelly: Slime Simulator, ASMR”. Unless users subscribe, the app is full of ads; it plays more than one in a row before the user can interact with it in a meaningful way. A report from MacRumors said the app “has a $13 a week subscription” to remove those ads. (When we downloaded the app itself, we were asked to subscribe to almost half of it, at $7.99 per week. It’s unclear to us if prices have changed since initial reports or if it’s a regional price difference. )
In either case, as MacRumors also pointed out, Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines explicitly state that Apple “will reject expensive apps that attempt to cheat users with irrationally high prices.” Of course, that’s subjective and open to interpretation, but some developers argue that this app and other apps in the “Slime Relaxations” story cross that line.
These are not new problems. In February, developer Kosta Eleftheriou be aware an Apple Watch scam app that was backed by fake reviews. Apple DELETED the offending app after Eleftheriou’s observations was widely reported on Twitter and in the media. But Eleftheriou and other developers continued to identify even more scam apps.
Apple defended its efforts to keep scam apps out of the App Store in a statement provided to The Verge as the press reported on Eleftheriou’s findings:
We take feedback about fraudulent activity seriously and investigate and act on every report. The App Store is designed to be a safe and trusted place for users to get apps, and a great opportunity for developers to be successful. We do not tolerate fraudulent activity in the App Store and have strict rules against apps and developers who try to cheat the system. In 2020 alone, we terminated more than half a million developer accounts for fraud and removed more than 60 million user reviews that were considered spam. As part of our ongoing efforts to maintain the integrity of our platform, our Discovery Fraud team is actively working to remove these types of violations and continuously improve their process.
Apple continues to dabble with these apps, but several developers have complained both publicly and privately that the company is taking too long. A developer we exchanged emails with claimed that Apple took 10 days to remove the app when they discovered a scam app that had stolen assets from their own legitimate app and was clearly designed to deprive users of the genuine transfer the app. 1-2 days” on the Android side. The app was allowed back into Apple’s App Store once the stolen assets were removed. During the long wait, the developer of the legitimate app lost a significant number of users and revenue, while the developer took advantage of the illegal app.
Like Apple fight legal battle to prevent third-party app stores from making their way to iOS because those alternative app stores may be less secure than Apple’s, claims by developers that scam apps are slipping through could undermine Apple’s defenses. The company has enough incentives to stop the scam apps, and the will seems to be there. But the processes Apple uses to achieve that goal seem far from perfect, and as a result, both users and legitimate developers are at risk.
Given what’s at stake for Apple in tackling this problem, it’s hard to imagine that the examples developers have uncovered are instances of malice rather than incompetence. But for developers and users, the consequences can often be the same.