Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Verge’s Profile of Kosta Eleftheriou

Sean Hollister, the Verge:

Recently, I reached out to the most profitable company in the world to ask a series of basic questions. I wanted to understand: how is a single man making the entire Apple App Store review team look silly? Particularly now that Apple’s in the fight of its life, both in the courts and in Congress later today, to prove its App Store is a well-run system that keeps users safe instead of a monopoly that needs to be broken up.

That man’s name is Kosta Eleftheriou, and over the past few months, he’s made a convincing case that Apple is either uninterested or incompetent at stopping multimillion-dollar scams in its own App Store. He’s repeatedly found scam apps that prey on ordinary iPhone and iPad owners by luring them into a “free trial” of an app with seemingly thousands of fake 5-star reviews, only to charge them outrageous sums of money for a recurring subscription that many don’t understand how to cancel. “It’s a situation that most communities are blind to because of how Apple is essentially brainwashing people into believing the App Store is a trusted place,” he tells The Verge.

There’s a lot to unpack there: fake free trials, fake reviews, subscription awareness. We could write an entire story about each. Today, I’d like to focus on how one guy could find what Apple’s $64-billion-a-year App Store apparently cannot, because the answer is remarkable.

It is remarkable because it is so simple. Hollister was easily able to replicate Eleftheriou’s scam-finding techniques, which combines data that Apple makes publicly available and information estimated by SensorTower. Some of these scams are raking in, according to Eleftheriou and SensorTower’s data, millions of dollars per year, and they are plentiful. They are so commonplace that Eleftheriou found more hidden casinos yesterday. This article is damning.

Apple undoubtably prevents some scams from making it into the App Store and makes others unavailable if they have been approved. But it should not be so easy for anyone to find so many of these apps with egregiously expensive subscription scams that run for months — they should not be that commonplace. As Ben Thompson wrote today, Apple’s reviewers seem “far more effective in figuring out how to navigate from a privacy policy on a web page to a purchase page” evading Apple’s in-app purchase mechanism than finding scams. I could not have said it better myself.