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Serious Warning Issued For Millions Of Apple iPhone Users

While Apple continues to report record profits, owners of the company’s 1.65 billion active iPhones and iPads are facing increasing financial risk using the Apple App Store. And now, following shock revelation after revelation after revelation after revelation after revelation about iOS scams with profits “measured in billions”, perhaps the most blatant manipulation of iPhone and iPad owners to date has been discovered.

In his latest high profile exposé of App Store fleeceware (which includes casinos hidden inside children’s games and a ‘factory’ of iOS scam apps), developer Kosta Eleftheriou has revealed how the App Store is allowing real users to be manipulated into propagating scams which impact every iPhone and iPad owner.

The Scam

The scam is “EXTREMELY easy for any developer to do” and highly effective: when downloaded, the App Store enables scam apps to forcibly demand a high app rating in order to use them. Low ratings cannot be input, there’s no option to cancel and only submitting a high score will allow you to continue.

“We already knew scammers buy fake ratings & reviews by the thousands,” explains Eleftheriou (he is right), “But when the fake ratings come from 100% real accounts in this way, scammers can scale their activities at no cost while Apple ignores users who complain - and even takes a cut of the revenue!”

The Ongoing Danger

Apple is clearly following Eleftheriou’s discoveries, it pulled the first app the developer found within 24 hours (which had been downloaded more than 15 million times with “$MILLIONS in revenue”), but Eleftheriou simply found more. And, the more developers dug into the problem, the deeper it got.

First, Eleftheriou found the scam has been going on for at least eight months before popular developer Guilherme Rambo unearthed how: it is based on unfixed flaws within Apple’s own code. Consequently, Apple suddenly deciding to play Whack-a-mole on rogue apps isn’t going to cut it.

The Wider Problem

Commenting on the problem, former Apple marketing director Michael Gartenberg exclaimed “How did this one slip through?” But last month court documents made it clear.

In legal documents released as part of the ongoing Epic Vs Apple trial, Eric Friedman, head of the company’s Fraud Engineering Algorithms and Risk (‘FEAR’ unit) compared App Store security to “bringing a plastic butter knife to a gunfight” saying the App Store review process is “more like the pretty lady who greets you… at the Hawaiian airport than the drug-sniffing dog”

Which brings us to Eleftheriou’s wider point:

“This puts into question the integrity of the entire App Store. My advice to users? Consider all App Store ratings compromised. Apple will eventually fix this problem on iOS, but that won’t remove all the fake ratings that have been submitted already. I believe that nothing short of a total App Store reset can fix the problem of millions of fake ratings & reviews that have accumulated over the years.”

And such a reset would fundamentally damage all honest app makers just trying to make a living. It’s a Catch-22 situation.

Eleftheriou does have skin in the game. The developer is currently suing Apple after his own iOS app FlickType was mimicked by scammers and Eleftheriou says he was unable to get Apple to act. Regardless, his discoveries are making users sit up and take notice. But the big question is whether Apple itself - which trades heavily on its superior security to Android - will take notice and make fundamental changes. If not, iPhone and iPad owners will have a decision to make.

In the meantime, I would advise everyone to go to Settings > App Store > In-App Ratings & Reviews and disable it. This will stop scam apps from forcing you to rate them. This setting is enabled by default but at least it will stop you contributing to the problem. 

“If you do decide to download any app from the App Store, don't trust the ratings or reviews,” Eleftheriou told me. “Ask friends for a recommendation, and make sure you know how to cancel a subscription before you (accidentally) start one!". 

 I have contacted Apple and will update this article when/if I receive a response.

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