Many people think that the sort of scams Microsoft cleared out of its mobile app store this year could never affect Apple. But how tight is Apple's review process for the App Store? If you're competing with Apple, it seems to be very tight, and the rules are constantly changing. But if you're a scammer looking to make a fast buck, it appears that Apple process can be defeated.
The scale of the problem became apparent in an open source project where I volunteer, the Apache OpenOffice community. For several months, the user support mailing list has been bothered with apparently random questions -- some very angry -- from people seeking support for an iPad app. The community has been confused by these questions, since they have nothing to do with any work at Apache; Apache OpenOffice doesn't even have an iOS version.
The questions originated from a support link for a $2.99 app in Apple's iTunes Store. The developer who posted this app has used all sorts of tricks to populate the entry for the app. Its name is Quickoffice Pro, which was the name of a genuine app purchased by Google in 2012 and finally discontinued in 2014. Purchasers would likely have a instinctive trust for the name, especially because the app uses the icon from the real Quickoffice product.
The developer has wasted little effort making the app; InfoWorld checked it and found it simply displays a gray screen with the word Tap. When you tap the screen, the app exits. The developer has pointed angry customers at an innocent open source project whose ethos is to treat all user queries seriously and that doesn't have the resources to mount a response for lack of volunteers.
I contacted Lee Elman of OneNation TV, who is named on the iTunes entry. He told me: "A developer that we hired as a freelance third party vendor published this app under my personal Apple developer account without permission or my knowledge. I take app fraud very seriously and will have the app removed as soon as possible."
If this was an isolated incident, it would be bad enough – after all, Apple claims to meticulously screen all submissions to the store. Perhaps one app getting through the force field around the walled garden would be forgivable. But there's another app by the same name.
This second app, Quickoffice Pro-for Microsoft Office Word, Excel, Powerpoint Edition, retails at $9.99 and actually does offer a basic word processor and spreadsheet. But for the same price you can buy Pages, Numbers, or any of a range of other apps.
That app also has a false support link to an unrelated company, Smart Apps for Kids, whose proprietor Lisa Ruddy told me, "We have absolutely nothing to do with this app, and I receive around 10-15 support requests per day, which as you can imagine is really annoying." This app is using Google's trademark and the icon from its former app. There's a third, also using Google's icon and with a non-existent website for support queries.
That's three apps that logic demands should never have been allowed into the App Store in the first place if anyone was paying the slightest attention to their names and icons, including one with a dummy URL for support and another hollow shell that cannot possibly have passed any meaningful scrutiny by an app tester. Yet they are all in the supposedly sanitary iTunes Store. I found several other apps (1, 2, 3) using the name Quickoffice (although without Google's icon). How many more apps like this are there in the App Store?
I contacted Apple for comment but received no reply at press time. [Updated 12/04/14: Apple has removed the two "Quickoffice" apps and that other fake app from the App Store, though it has not refunded customers who bought them in belief they were legitimate.]
Maybe we could have expected this from the Microsoft Store, where developers seem to have been paid to show up and where scams were the norm until Microsoft finally applied controls. But we've been led to believe Apple's processes could never allow this to happen.
Is Apple actually doing anything to protect its users against scammers? We await Apple's response.