How to Avoid App Store Scams

“The good thing is that, unless we’re talking about a brand-new app with no reviews, scams will inevitably accumulate a lot of bad reviews, particularly ones that literally accuse the app of being a scam,” Eleftheriou said. “And while scammers can try to drown these reviews with fake ones, they can’t ever make the bad ones go away.”

One way to make sure you’re getting the real story on an app is to check out the 1- and 2-star reviews first, to see what specifically made people dislike it. There will always be negative reviewers who are simply complaining because they didn’t understand how an app works or because they have a grudge. But if you find dozens of reviews saying an app stole money or doesn’t do what it claims to do, that should give you pause.

Don’t Give Money Without a Free Trial

An app that injects ads into your phone is annoying enough, but when an app demands money for a service it doesn’t actually perform, that’s even worse. No matter what app you’re trying to use, maintain a clear red line in your mind when it comes to turning over cash. No app should get your money unless you have good reason to believe you’ll get what you paid for.

One key way to avoid getting cheated is to insist on a free trial. Both Google’s and Apple’s stores have mechanisms that developers can use to offer trial subscriptions to their services, and both have policies requiring developers to disclose how to cancel a subscription before a user gets charged more than they expected (though some scammy developers still skirt around this requirement). In general, you can expect at least a three-day free trial for any subscription-based service, and you should be able to cancel before you get charged.

Of course, scam developers hope you’ll forget and pay for a service you don’t actually use or want. Some scam apps have been found to start with a three-day free trial but quickly pivot to a $10 charge every week. Not month. Week. Some variation of these scams have been happening for years. These charges can add up fast, and if you’re not paying attention to what you agree to, you could end up shelling out nonrefundable money for an app that doesn’t do what it claims.

If you’ve already read an app’s reviews and decided to give it a chance, start a free trial and test it immediately. Don’t let free trials sit, and cancel them immediately if you decide an app isn’t worth it. And make sure you check out how to cancel subscriptions through your phone. Both Google and Apple have tools to cancel all your existing subscriptions in one place, so you don’t have to dig through each app’s settings to find the button that the developer doesn’t want you to find.

Avoiding apps that want to steal your data or install malware can be harder, since they won’t always have an obvious threshold like asking for payment information. One way to get around this is to treat your permissions as a similar filter for apps you don’t trust. Not sure why a weather app needs access to your contacts? Don’t give it to them. And, once again, if you’re not sure whether an app is out to steal your data, read the reviews .

Above All, Seek Trustworthy Recommendations

Chances are good that if you find a new app to try out, you’ll find it through your phone’s app store, but that’s not your only option. As we’ve seen, rankings, reviews, and ratings can all be gamed, and sometimes whole companies exist to manipulate them. So if you’re looking for a new to-do list app or PDF scanner, try finding sites or forums with suggestions first.

Many sites (like WIRED) will round up apps in a particular category, and will test or research them for you. It’s still a good idea to check out the apps for yourself, but starting with a recommendation from a human who was paid to vet them can serve as a useful first filter.

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