Security

Dishonest competitors in the AppStore destroy progressive business: how long will Apple support turn a blind eye to the problem

An ambitious team of 14 developers of popular AI apps for iOS could be wiped out. The company’s account is blocked due to the actions of dishonest competitors. The developers sent evidence to Apple support that this was a bot attack, but they never received an answer. Meanwhile, the fraud continues with impunity and any application can become a victim of a bot farm attack. 

Appic Stars LLC has been developing mobile applications for iOS since November 2018. The main areas of the company were apps with AI technologies in categories Photo & Video and Graphics & Design.The company developed its own AI solutions and constantly trained the neural network providing really good products and user experience.

During the entire existence, the company has not had a single purchased bot and didn’t buy fake reviews. At the same time, all applications by Appic Stars LLC had high ratings.

In terms of the number of installs, the applications Remove Background Editor (the neural network very accurately automatically removed the background from the photo) and Blur Background Photo Editor (the neural network determined the object and blurred the background in the photo) had high user ratings. They have been rated 4.5 stars in their three years of operation. iOS users really liked the Appic Stars LLC apps, which are now unavailable due to an attack by a dishonest competitor.

 The team of 14 talented people found themselves in a complex situation. On July 19, 2022 Developer Program Membership of Appic Stars LLC was flagged for removal for having a high refund rate. It means that the whole business is now in danger of extinction.

«We have invested a lot of effort in creating quality applications and in a fair way to reach the top positions in the App Store. Our team received $650,000 of total investments in 3 years. Monthly sales were $75,000. We have an ambitious product development plan, but we can’t work right now», – says product owner. 

The company turned to lawyers and sent an appeal to Apple support confirming the facts of the bot attack.

Why the company account was blocked 

The following situation led to the deletion of the company account. In April 2022 the team noticed an increasing amount of bot attacks in their app Translator App – Voice & Text. In recent months, the app has averaged 10,000 organic installs per month.

During the internal investigation the team found bot attacks on April – May 2022.

«We have submitted a set of reports due to this fact and yet received no feedback from the Apple team», – says product owner.

The developers indicated the following evidence that their application was attacked by bots. They are sure that they have become a victim of unfair competition.

Fact 1. Bulk app purchases were made only from the Vietnamese store 

In May 2022 some of the bots started buying annual subscriptions within the apps and making refunds.

In 90 days, in the Vietnam store 1-year subscriptions were bought for the total amount of $30,900 and refunds were made for the amount of $29,500, making the refund rate to 95%. In the previous period there were 0 annual subscriptions on the Vietnam store.

Fact 2. The number of refunds has increased dramatically 

The number of refunds has increased dramatically at a time (look at the screenshot). In the 3 years of work of the company, this has never been observed. Also in Blur Background app the refund rate grew from 7% in March 2022 to 14% in July 2022. The team notes that they had only organic traffic and didn’t send any traffic from third party platforms.

On the screenshot: Refund Rate chart March – June 2022, Vietnam (according to Apphud).

 «Because of this fraudulent activity against us we could not analyze the real metrics and could not make the right decision as we were waiting for the case resolution from the Apple investigation», – says product owner.

Fact 3. Users from the Vietnamese store changed weekly subscriptions to the annual trial manually

 Users from Vietnam signed up for a weekly subscription with a trial on onboarding. And then they manually changed it to annual. Prior to this period, a weekly trial was activated only 13 times a month. During the attack, the number of weekly purchases skyrocketed to 810.

Further, all subscriptions went into the grace period on the screen below (this means that users credit card on file with the App Store is declined for some reason (expired, etc.).

And only after that, users manually changed the weekly subscription to the annual one.

The developers consider it suspicious that they did not have any purchases from Vietnam before the attack. Traffic appeared at once. Moreover, Vietnamese users massively bought the expensive annual subscription, which is not easy to get.

Users from all other regions (and, in particular, the US) bought a weekly subscription, because it was sold on onboarding. This is clearly demonstrated in the US Trial Conversions analytics. For example, if you select the date May 28, then the analytics shows that all requests in the US were converted into weekly trials. At the same time, only annual purchases came from Vietnam, although it is much more difficult to buy them.

Analytics on Trial Conversions in the USA.

Analytics on Trial Conversions in Vietnam.

Fact 4. The purchase of the annual trial was made on purpose

 The developers are sure that there was no way someone could buy the annual trial accidentally. Here you can see how the user can purchase an annual subscription step by step:

  • download and launch the app
  • pass through onboarding flow
  • translate 10 phrases

 Fact 5. All purchases from Vietnam were made from the same devices

 During an internal investigation, the developers determined that all purchases of the annual subscription made in Vietnam were made from the same devices. It was an Iphone 11 Pro Max (screenshot below). At the same time, purchases made from the United States were made from different devices.

Moreover, most of IDFV had 2 and more trials and subscriptions, for example:

IDFV – EB9C887C-1191-4583-B519-3913B3929EB1 – 4 subscriptions;

IDFV – 6C1EB64F-AF1F-4EA6-AA10-4C7B6FC7B3EF – 12 subscriptions.

 

Apple support is still silent

 On May 2022, right after the team noticed such activity, they submitted a report to Apple (Case 101705603531). But the issue was not resolved and the case never had any resolution although it has been 4 months since the first application. During this period, Apple support could conduct its own investigation. We were sure that Apple would solve the problem and the scammers would be punished. After all, they have all the technical capabilities to detect scam traffic. Instead, the developer account was deleted.

 The growing and progressive business that raises the level of the entire tech industry is under threat. In addition, if the problem is not solved, then it allows dishonest competitors to destroy applications, harming the development of technology and the prestige of the iOS platform. After all, any other honest developers may find themselves in the same position.

« We are sure that planned bot attacks took place there. Obviously, we are not the only ones affected by this well-established bot pattern. We know that there are some bot farms that can attack anyone on any given day. How long will Apple remain indifferent to such a serious problem in the industry?», – product owner warns.

Darya Pravasud

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Darya Pravasud

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