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Don’t Get Scammed by Fake Apps: Here’s What to Look Out For

Posted in Security on October 06, 2023

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Do you know that app stores like the Google Play Store and App Store contain fake apps? Many smartphone users are not aware of it. But it is an increasing trend that you should educate yourself on. In this article, let’s look at how to know if your phone is hacked with a fake app and discuss preventative measures to make sure you don’t install one by accident.

Understanding fake apps

A fake app looks similar to a legitimate app but has a hidden, malicious function. Examples of harmful functions include:

  • Fraudulent billing charges with your payment details.
  • Ransomware holds your smartphone hostage until you pay up.
  • Spyware gathers and sells your data.
  • Trojan apps download other malware on your device.
  • Ad bots spam your phone with advertisements to generate revenue.
  • Spam apps use your device and send out messages.
  • Fleeceware apps extortionate hidden service costs.

On the surface, these apps look legitimate and often emulate a real company or existing app. The unwitting user is pulled in, thinking they are downloading a legit product. In reality, they open their smartphone up to potential harm.

One of the best-known examples is the BankBot series of trojan apps that have resurfaced multiple times. Usually, they target large financial corporations like Santander, Well Fargo, and ING. The apps infect your phone, aiming to steal your login details for banking apps and other software.

You would expect app stores like Google Play and the App Store to take down fake apps immediately. But the response times are slow, and fake apps remain on app stores for long periods. Moreover, fake app developers find new ways to bypass detection, so it’s difficult for companies like Google to keep up and stay ahead of the tactics. So understanding what to look out for when downloading apps is crucial.

Frequently targeted app types

Fake apps are not confined to one app type, but some app categories see fake apps more often:

  • Mobile games
  • Financial apps
  • Antivirus software
  • Smartphone cleanup apps
  • Free VPNs
  • Simple utility apps like calculators
  • Dating apps

Cybercriminals deem these types as the easiest to create fake apps for. Most require you to enter personal details or payment information that cybercriminals can steal or exploit.

A 5-step guide to spotting fake apps

It’s time to learn how to spot fake apps. Luckily, phony apps share similar features, so this five-step guide can help you stay protected:

1. Read the app store customer reviews

Apps on the Google Play Store and App Store have genuine customer reviews and an average rating. The first thing you should do is scroll down through these reviews and scan for potential red flags. 

Fake apps usually have at least a few bad reviews from unfortunate customers who have fallen prey to their malicious tactics. And spotting negative reviews is easy.

Also, look at the authenticity of the positive reviews. Fake app companies often pay people to write fraudulent 5-star reviews. Most of the time, such reviews have hyperbolic language and are overly positive.

2. Do a background check on the developer

If the reviews look authentic, do a quick background check on the app developer and see what info you find.

For example, do a Google search for Revolut Ltd, the creator of the Revolut mobile finance app. You can find sound business info like their revenue, headquarters, and accounting details. It all points towards the app developer being authentic and not a scam business.

3. Look at the number of downloads

Download count shows how popular apps are. An app with a high star rating but a low download count is immediately suspicious. Either those reviews don’t mean much or point to a fake app company that has falsified its first reviews.

If you look at the Revolut app on the Google Play store, it has over 10 million downloads and averages a 4.7-star rating. That’s solid evidence that it’s a credible app.

4. Find the app release date

The shelf-life of fake apps is usually short because they are detected and taken down from app stores. So if the reviews look fine, the company checks out, and the downloads match, look at the software’s release date.

Reputable and popular apps take time to build their reputation and could be available in app stores for years before they gain traction. A supposedly popular app released days or weeks ago is likely a fake one.

5. Look at the app permissions

If everything else looks OK, check the permissions the app requests. Fake apps often have random permission requests that have little to do with the app’s function. For example, a simple utility app like a calculator could request access to your contacts, photos, or camera. Decline the permissions and get rid of suspicious apps immediately.

Stay vigilant

With so much personal information available on your smartphone, you must stay attentive and protect yourself from fake apps. Use the above five-step guide and only install apps from trusted developers to avoid malicious incidents and secure your data.