Tech Tips: Tech companies struggle to remove fake apps

Fake apps are a continuing problem on the official app stores. Apple, Google and Microsoft are all struggling unsuccessfully to keep them at bay. For every bad app they remove, countless more take its place. Here’s how you can recognize fake apps and keep them off your computer and phone.

What’s the purpose of fake apps? Cybercrime. Fake apps are usually malware or data stealers disguised as legitimate apps. Some are mere nuisances and are easy to remove. Others are malicious, providing a back door by which hackers can infiltrate your computer and steal your data. Once stolen, your data is redistributed and sold online, leading to financial fraud and identity theft.

It’s not always easy to tell the fake apps from the real deal. Criminals can make their fakes look identical, down to the logos and colors. They’ll even post fake five-star reviews to make you believe the app is real. You might not realize the app is fake as long as it provides some semblance of functionality. It sits there on your computer or phone, silently stealing data and installing back doors on any vulnerable system it can find on your network.

Even worse are those apps that used to be genuine, but have been abandoned or sold to scammers. Existing users have no way to know that the new developers just turned the app into malware, unless they take the time to research the app’s new owner. Few people know how to do that, and fewer will bother to investigate.

Fleeceware is another app store scam you’ll want to avoid. Fleeceware apps are real in that they usually work as advertised, but they charge you ridiculous subscription fees that are way beyond the normal range. For example, a flashlight app should not cost $30 a month, especially since your phone already has a built-in flashlight that’s free!

So what can you do to avoid fake apps? First, be cautious about the apps you install. Many people simply assume that apps on the official app stores must be safe, but that’s not the case. Second, do a quick inventory of your apps and remove any you aren’t using or that haven’t been updated in a long time. Third, check your app subscriptions through the official Apple, Google or Microsoft stores to find any fleeceware. Look at the long-term subscription prices before you buy, and keep an eye on your subscriptions to make sure they don’t inflate the price later.

When choosing apps, take a close look at the name of the developer. Do a web search to make sure this app is the right one. Most developers have their own websites where they offer support and contact information. You also should find out what user data the app requests. This information is readily available on the app store page. A legitimate app only will ask for the minimum information it needs to function, but a fake app (or a poorly designed one) wants access to all your data even if it doesn’t need it.

• Triona Guidry is a freelance writer and consumer technology specialist offering tech support and advice for home computer users. For free weekly tips and news by email, subscribe to her Simple Tech Tips blog at