Not all apps on the Google Play or Apple App stores are there for your convenience and entertainment — some are malicious. Unfortunately, Apple and Google haven’t been completely successful at regulating these stores. You could run into the many fake apps that have made it through security and sit there waiting for you, at any time. Security statistics indicate fake apps were the second largest cause of fraud attacks in 2019 with cases tripling in number from the previous year.
These malicious apps can sometimes install malware on your device and leak your personal information. After stealing your information, cybercriminals could use it to impersonate you, commit financial fraud, or scam other unsuspecting people via your accounts.
Let’s take a deep dive into what fake apps are and how they operate. We’ll also explore the different types of fake apps and how to protect yourself from them.
What Are Fake Apps?
Fake or malicious apps are applications created with intent to scam you. They sometimes pose as popular or well-known programs, but instead of providing the promised functionality, they steal information or money from you.
Some malicious apps are more sophisticated, providing you with useful functions while ruthlessly harvesting your data in the background. For example, TikTok provides people with a lot of fun, but did you know it can log everything you type?
Having everything you type monitored and logged is a nightmare for privacy-concerned individuals. If privacy is a major concern for you, it’s worth carefully inspecting an app’s terms and conditions before agreeing to them.
Types of Fake Apps
Fake apps come in many convincing disguises. Unfortunately, this means mobile app users are susceptible to a wide range of threats. To give you a better idea of the menaces you face on your phone or tablet, here are the most common types of fake apps.
From time to time, developers create open-source apps. While initially intended for public good, these apps can be accessed and modified by anyone. This makes them easy targets for cybercriminals to add harmful or spammy features. Since they’re open source, modifying them is technically legal. It’s also easier for cybercriminals to modify open-source apps than to make their own from scratch.
2. Trojan Apps
Apps with trojan malware can install other apps or file libraries without your knowledge or consent. They can also steal your personal information and lock your device until you pay a ransom. Trojanized apps are a huge security risk but often seem legitimate at face value.
Counterfeit or imitation apps are fake versions of real existing apps. The descriptions often match the legitimate version, fooling you into thinking it’s the app you need. However, counterfeit apps often change one or two letters from the original name, — always look carefully before downloading.
The below example shows how one company capitalized on the universality of associating the term “Word Doc” with Microsoft’s Word Processor. They also made a close replica of the original Microsoft Office logo.
Cybercriminals also take advantage of people seeking free versions of apps that are usually paid. For example, they may offer free VPNs or anti-malware with premium features, but in reality, they overpromise and harvest your data in the background instead.
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Fleeceware apps come with excessive hidden costs or subscription fees. While not technically illegal, the hidden costs are extremely unreasonable. Being way above market price, fleeceware apps trick you into paying extortionate sums for simple services. For example, a PDF reader app that cost $10 per week, or a simple note-taking app that cost $50 per month would be considered fleeceware.
Scareware is malware that’s designed to scare you into downloading something unnecessary and potentially harmful. Advertisements for scareware apps usually give false alerts saying you’re at risk from nonexistent threats.
After presenting you with a fake problem, scareware apps offer you fake solutions. These false security apps are more harmful than helpful and may have trojan malware or spyware encoded.
Fake apps that contain spyware leak information from your device and transmit your data to a server controlled by cybercriminals. They use this data to blackmail you for financial compensation or to gain unauthorized access to your personal details. If they get access to your financial details, they can commit identity theft and financial fraud.
Authoritarian governments or police states often employ “hacker-for-hire” cybercrime rings to target individuals or organizations with spyware. They collect information to spy on or persecute people, to influence or remove any threats to their power.
A recent example of this is the FIFA World Cup app created by the Qatari government. World Cup visitors have to download the app, giving the Qatari government full access to their phones.
7. Fake Cash Apps
Several fake apps are using screenshots of legitimate cash apps to lure people into believing they’re using the real thing and it’s become a widespread issue. These apps generally use fake balance screenshots to trick you into believing they’re authentic. However, these apps are actually scams attempting to steal your personal information or money.
The most common fake cash apps try to replicate Cash App, PayPal, and Venmo. Be careful when downloading these apps — do your research first. If anything you see gives you a reason to pause, trust that feeling.
Which Types of Apps are the Biggest Target?
While fake apps can take the form of any type of app, the most common types to be targeted are:
- Game apps
- COVID-19 apps
- Dating apps
- Cash apps
- Fake VPN apps
- Mobile cleaner apps
- Utility apps (like flashlight, keyboard, calculator apps)
- Antivirus apps
It’s important to always be aware of potentially fake apps on the Apple App Store or Google Play Store, but be extra careful with apps in these categories.
While other software can’t protect you against any app permissions you approve on fake apps, many provide ways to improve your general digital security. Using a VPN, for example, protects you from various cyber attacks, keeps you safe while browsing on public networks, and can hide your IP address from both third parties and any sites you visit.
CyberGhost VPN offers military-grade cyber-protection so you can surf the web safely. Don’t trivialize your online security — install CyberGhost VPN today.
How Do Fake Apps Work?
Fake apps trick you into believing they’re authentic. When you download them, they can contain code that leaks your data, locks important data for ransom, or harvests your personal information for fraudulent reasons.
These malicious apps often execute their sinister dealings in the background, with you none the wiser. Some fake apps function normally but secretly install unwanted software or “payloads’ on your device for malignant reasons.
Some fake apps steal your personal information by asking you to fill out a login or sign-up form. Others directly inject existing apps with ads to make money off you.
Fake Apps on the Apple App Store and Google Play
While app stores should take responsibility for thoroughly screening apps — they don’t. So, you need to protect yourself by exercising caution. Unfortunately, there are plenty of fake apps to avoid on Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store.
Both platforms allow developers to submit apps for approval. There’s no guarantee each app is screened thoroughly for authenticity. As a result, fake apps regularly make their way onto the app stores where they’re downloaded by unsuspecting people.
Apple and Google recently came under fire for the crypto scam apps available on their stores. These apps were targeting people with phishing scams and were spreading malware. The widespread interest in cryptocurrency over recent years has made it a prime target for cybercriminals. If you trade crypto, knowing the tell-tale signs of a crypto scam can help you prevent unnecessary loss.
Be Wary of Fake VPN Apps
Fake VPN apps are also common online, especially on other poorly regulated app stores. Fake VPN apps downloaded from random sites are likely much more dangerous than those found on the App Store or Play Store. Recent cases of fake VPN apps in the Middle East contained government-sponsored spyware to target specific groups.
If you’re a privacy-concerned person, avoid free VPNs, even on legitimate app stores. They lie about offering premium features as they don’t have the resources to maintain a large network, and make money by selling your data to third parties.
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How to Spot a Fake App
Identifying fake apps isn’t always straightforward and developers behind these apps do a good job of making them appear authentic. However, you can examine an app if you’re uncertain about its authenticity. I’ve put the most common red flags together for you here:
1. Pay Attention to the Title
Counterfeit apps imitate real apps and replicate their titles as closely as possible. Oftentimes, the title will only differ from the real app’s title by a letter or two. Maybe even contain a symbol like _, >, or – that doesn’t need to be there. The success of these counterfeit apps relies on users not thoroughly looking through them before downloading. For example, a fake version of WhatsApp could be called “WhatApp.”
You might open your app store, type in the app name, and just download the first one without giving it much thought. A well-chosen fake title alongside a close replica of the icon can easily trick the savviest app users.
2. Inspect the Icon
App icons can also be closely copied to mislead you into thinking you’re downloading the right app. Visuals can be very powerful and we rarely check the fine details of app logos. Oftentimes, the same color and general outline are enough to trick the brain into thinking you’re downloading the right app. Always double-check against the real icon.
3. Check the Developer’s Name
Another tell-tale sign that you’re not downloading the real version of the app you want is the developer’s name. You can usually find the developer name just under the app name after opening its store page.
Check the name of the legitimate developer online against what’s coming up in your app store. Make sure to check the developer’s name letter-by-letter — cybercriminals closely copy names to mislead you.
4, Check the Download Count
The number of downloads indicates how popular an app is. Millions of downloads and good reviews is a solid indication of legitimacy. Fake apps will often get caught before they reach too many downloads. This is because users tend to report fake or harmful apps to prevent further damage.
While the number of downloads is a tell-tale sign, make sure it’s not the only metric you use. Some fake app developers also buy fake downloads, which means a new app with an unusually high number of downloads should also give you pause.
5. Read Consumer Reviews
You can check an app’s credibility by reading customer reviews. If you’re seeing plenty of bad reviews, this should be a red flag — avoid downloading it. Unfortunately, lots of good reviews doesn’t necessarily indicate authenticity or quality either, as it’s possible to use bots to generate good reviews. If the glowing 5-star reviews you’re seeing sound fake, they probably are.
6. Check App Permissions
Fake apps often have strange and unrelated app permission requests. Don’t accept any app permissions that seem unnecessary, such as a note-taking app asking for access to your location. If the app refuses to work without them, you should be wary.
These tips should be used together. While they’re all indicators, they work better as a toolkit. You can’t guarantee what you’re downloading is safe, only take steps to increase your safety.
Pro tip: Install Google Play Protect to scan apps before downloading them onto your device.
What To Do If You Encounter Fake Apps
You’ve stumbled on a fake app, what should you do? Here’s a list of steps you can take:
- Don’t click on links someone sent to you, search for the app you want and download it straight from the store page.
- Don’t install the app.
- Double-check that it’s fake.
- If so, write a review to warn other users about it.
- Report the fake app to the app store.
If you’ve already downloaded the fake app, you can:
- Uninstall it immediately and run a virus scan — just make sure to download a reputable antivirus app, you don’t want another fake app on your hands!
- Delete any files that were associated with the app and unsubscribe to any in-app subscriptions.
- Report the fake app to the app store to protect other users.
- Make sure all the other apps on your phone as well as your OS are up to date, and delete any apps you aren’t using anymore.
- Consider wiping your device by doing a factory reset. This will wipe everything off your phone so transfer important files and data to the cloud or another device first.
If you’re concerned about your bank details, it may be worth calling your bank to notify them of the potential risk. Warn them to be vigilant about strange transactions and to flag or block any that seem suspicious or unfamiliar.
Protecting Yourself From Fake App Scams
Fake apps are a widespread problem that affects people worldwide. These apps come in many forms and whether it’s a counterfeit copy of a real app or an open-source app with spyware injected into its code, it has the potential to cause harm. Downloading fake apps can lead to personal information leaks, landing your sensitive data in a cybercriminal’s hands.
Concerned about digital security? Take steps to safeguard your privacy when browsing online. While VPNs can’t protect you against a fake app if you install it, they can protect you in other ways. No one thing can protect your online privacy alone. It requires combining different security tools, safe habits, and common sense to keep your data safe. By using a reliable VPN, you reduce your chances of falling victim to various online attacks.
CyberGhost VPN is a feature-rich VPN service that supports all device types. With many servers and the ability to securely conceal your device’s IP address, you’ll be safer against many types of threats while browsing. Download CyberGhost VPN to secure your online activity.
Frequently Asked Questions
Fake apps are intentionally created to scam you. They can come in the form of copies of legitimate apps, apps with excessive hidden costs, or open-source apps injected with spyware. While using a VPN can’t protect you if you agree to an app’s permission requests, it can protect you from a wide range of digital threats.
CyberGhost VPN protects you from attacks on public Wi-Fi networks and can stop cybercriminals from tracking you. Install CyberGhost VPN to enjoy safer internet activity.
The Apple App Store and the Google Play Store both have fake apps. Unfortunately, regular app stores don’t always thoroughly check apps for authenticity and users can download them unknowingly. Third-party app stores and websites are worse still, as most don’t bother reviewing the authenticity of apps at all, and downloads from these can be much riskier.
While it’s not always possible to know for sure if an app is fake or legitimate, to get a good general idea you can investigate the title and icon carefully, read customer reviews, and check the developer’s name. Check out our guide for more ways to recognize a fake app with detailed explanations.
A fake app may use screenshots of the legitimate version of the app. To know whether the app is real or fake, you should investigate other details about the app including the name, developer, and customer reviews. Read our list of tips for spotting fake apps.
Don’t download suspicious apps. If you’ve already downloaded one, uninstall it immediately, run a virus scan, and alert your bank of potential activity. The best way to protect yourself against fake apps is to know how to avoid them entirely. Check for telltale signs you might be seeing a fake app as outlined in our guide.
Fake apps aren’t the only threat you face when you connect your devices to the internet, though, and using a VPN holds many benefits for improving your digital security.