Apple's Scam Reporting Tool Is Great, but Only If It Works

The beginning of the end for scammers and fraudsters?

Key Takeaways

  • The iOS App Store now has a button to report scams. 
  • The App Store isn’t as safe as you might think.
  • Wasn’t the App Store review process supposed to catch this stuff?
Closeup of the app icon for the Apple App store on an iPhone.

James Yarema / Unsplash

Finally, you can tell Apple about those so-obvious-it-should-have-noticed-already scams in the App Store. 

Previously, Apple offered a "Report a Problem" button on the iOS App Store, but that was retired, leaving no way to complain directly about an app. Now, the button is back, and with a lot more power. You still can request a refund or report a quality issue, but now you also can report a scam or fraud. That's fine, but what difference will it make? And why has it taken so long?

"Outside researchers consistently find scams and malware that Apple misses during their review process," Sean O'Brien, founder of Yale Privacy Lab, told Lifewire via email. "Scams will continue to proliferate until Apple takes review more seriously, running automated tests, as well as spending more hands-on time and effort studying apps before listing them in the App Store."

A Wretched Hive of Scams and Villainy

The App Store is full of scammy apps, from confusing and expensive subscriptions to gambling apps aimed at kids. Surely Apple notices these at the app review stage? Isn't that what app review is for, after all? One of the selling points of the App Store is that all apps are vetted, making it much safer than downloading any old app off the internet.

So ineffective is Apple's review process that it is routinely bested by one man. Kosta Eleftheriou is a "professional App Store critic" and the developer behind the FlickType keyboard for the Apple Watch.

Scams will continue to proliferate until Apple takes review more seriously...

Eleftheriou uncovers and publicizes apps that are clearly scams. For example, an app might require the user to sign up for a free trial, and after this trial period ends, it switches to an expensive weekly subscription, which the user doesn't know about or doesn't know how to cancel.

One look at these apps will tell a savvy observer the truth, so why do they even make it into the App Store?

Scams "trick people into giving up money or information. That's much more difficult or even impossible for automated malware scans to check for," Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate at Comparitech, told Lifewire via email. 

"Manually vetting apps for scams like Eleftheriou makes it seem obvious, but manual inspection might not be feasible for Apple to do on every new app and update. Instead, Apple has decided to rely on user reports to identify scams."

Crowdsourced Bunco Squad

If you paid to enter a convenience store, but the place was full of pickpockets and shoplifters, you'd demand your money back. But the App Store is—to stretch this metaphor—the only convenience store in town, so there's no choice. Apple needs to clean the place up.

View from above of someone with fingerless gloves typing on a laptop to indicate an internet scammer.

Towfiqu barbhuiya / Unsplash

The new scam-reporting tool signifies that Apple finally is taking this problem seriously, but reports mean nothing if nobody acts on them. And there are other ways to detect dodgy and fraudulent apps. Just pay attention to users' comments. 

"I'd also encourage Apple to listen to its users—often, I find dozens of negative comments identifying scams on app listings before the scams are recognized by Apple and removed," says O'Brien. 

The App Store is huge and difficult to police, but this is a hole that Apple has dug for itself. If its app review process had been designed to catch scams from the beginning, we wouldn't be in this mess. The store generates $64 billion a year, so a small budget might be available to fix the issues. 

Back in 2018, Apple pundit John Gruber suggested that Apple put together a Bunco Squad, a small team of people to review apps and remove those that violate Apple's guidelines. Gruber suggested just starting with the list of top-grossing apps would make a huge difference, and he was likely correct.

Could Apple's change in policy be the beginning of that Bunco Squad? It seems possible.

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