Getting your iOS app of 3 years wiped out by scammers with fake ratings - or - “Apple, how on earth can you look away?”

My app is the fastest and most reliable application in its niche - despite that, two competitors have been rated 1 star higher, have been getting more downloads, and put me out of business - how?

Tl;dr I have spent the last four years of my life working on my very successful app only to have it ruined by scam apps with very obvious fake reviews as well as false advertising claims that Apple does not take action against. I can literally prove they are fake but Apple refuses to take action for undisclosed reasons, allowing thousands of more people getting scammed by these apps day by day.

I see no reason why my numerous reports to Apple have not led to any success for far. What I am aiming for with that post is to hopefully reach another person at Apple that will at least have a look at my data - once you look at it you will agree to my case.

Edit — February 9th 4PM CET: One of the scam apps have turned “unavailable” on the App Store now. The other (in my mind, even more obvious) scam app is still active. I will not remove any information from this Story as we still have A LOT of work to do on the other app as well as MANY more on the App Store. Sorry for the interruptions, now please, keep reading:

Edit — February 10th 3AM CET: Both scams are online again.

The “plus” app has now removed the “forced review prompt”* - but the damage is done. The ratings are still here. This is like robbing a bank, saying sorry, and keeping the stolen goods. I’m tired of this, it hurts.

*they put it back in again.

In 2017, at 23 years of age, I launched my (admittedly back then pretty unfinished) app that skyrocketed into the Top 10 paid category of dozens of countries over night. It was more than the biggest success I would have ever expected to have in life. So I worked night and day on it in order to please users who believed in the product and bought it at such an early stage. Whilst not being perfect just yet the app today runs pretty well in my book.

Despite many (30+) competitors have tried their luck to get into that niche and to drive me off the market, the fact that I quit university and did pretty much nothing but to work on the app for a whole long time kept my app as the defacto-standard for that use case. It ran (and still does) better than those of the competitors: YouTubers reviewed it. Tech magazines wrote up articles on it. It is the app people on Facebook and Reddit recommend to each other when asked for what app to pick. It was really rewarding to see people appreciating my work.

On the 19th December 2019, I got an email from a user of mine that read

Hello -

I just noticed a new app on the iOS App Store that advertises functionality similar to your WatchChat App and has unbelievably fantastic reviews.

The app is called “WatchApp - For WhatsApp”.

https://apps.apple.com/us/app/watchapp-for-whatsapp/id1489508638

I then noticed that the reviews appeared to be a bit “fishy”. Many reviews were added this past Sunday, most with Asian authors but all were written in English and some referred to WatchChat in the review, not WatchApp. Sure enough when looking at the reviews for your app, many were copied straight over from the reviews for your app.

I am a user of your app and didn’t know where to report the obviously fraudulent reviews to Apple, so I thought I would let you know. I hope you can get something done about it if you care to. Good luck!

Having competitors copy my app’s functionality is not new to me. That is the freedom of the free market. However, I was completely shocked that the review copying was even a thing. The developer’s name is Followers Unfollowers Tracker - which is a common name for a long-going App Store scam using Instagram apps that trick you into buying a $10/week subscription for an app with no real value. Needless to say, the developer also happens to offer a similar app and the last 30 days of activity shown on Sensortower will give you a preview of what this whole post is about and how it is putting me out of business by doing things that can - in no way - be overseen by Apple.

Their “online tracker” app is a perfect example to demonstrate some basic methodology on analyzing this scam.

If you are not already convinced by looking at the screenshots, you can either take my word for it and skip to the next part or read my analysis of the data:

As you can see, the developer has purchased 109 5* ratings on Dec 11 [1]. There is the occasional 1* review ([2], almost invisible compared to the bulk purchases) but over the 3 green December bars, supposedly every user, who, for some reason, never had the chance to rate the app before that, suddenly collectively decided to rate the app on these 3 days. Asking for reviews after updates is not unusual - but there was no update.

The app DOES get bad reviews [2], however, on Dec 11, EVERYONE who reviewed the app for some reason agreed that the app was in fact perfect. No 1* review whatsoever. These ratings also did not come from new users - Dec 11 was underrepresented when you look at the download rankings for that app [3].

On average, on “ratings spike days” you would expect users to rate your app in a way that applies to the normal ratio of 1* and 5* reviews - surprisingly, that DID happen, because on 1475 5* reviews, there were 0 (zero) 4* and 0 (zero) 3* reviews [4]. Although you cannot apply standard distributions to a ratings system due to the human nature of rating things in bipolar extremes (either the app is good: 5* or the app is bad: 1*, everything in between is not picked as often), having absolutely ZERO 3* and 4* star ratings is virtually impossible on a sample size of 1481 reviews.

And I am not even getting started on how the probability of having 1475 5* vs 5 (in words: FIVE) 1* reviews is (5/1475 means a ratio of 0.0034).

Now let me come back to the app of the initial email that my user sent to me -the app that destroys my honest business. It is unsurprising that we see the exact same pattern:

Ridiculously many reviews on seemingly random days. The ratings gap between the 28th and the 30th speaks more than a thousand words.

As this app has gained more traction, we see real people rating the app, visualized by the constant stream of 1–2 negative reviews per day. Once the bad reviews get too heavy on the app, the developer just buys more than 200 positive reviews on a single day. The developer is able to once again get ahead of my product until the ratings drop to a sensible level. And he buys ratings again. But given how Apple appears to take absolutely no action against that, why would he stop? This guy cashes in big time and Apple? Your company does not seem to mind.

I do not see a need to demonstrate again how, on a day with no spike in downloads, receiving 201 5* ratings without any 1* rating among them is impossible. But Apple, I hope you see this at some point because apparently my repeated emails to you were unsuccessful at achieving that.

Now, for a break, let us ignore the numbers and look at the letters: the phrases being used in the UK reviews.

“Track my chats”. See “who unfollows me”. Do you remember the developer’s name? On their review order, they forgot to change the subject from what they usually order reviews for. The fake reviews literally comment Instagram-related stuff on a WhatsApp app. No human does this. Maybe one by accident, but not hundreds. It is because the developer under their many companies listed under similar addresses is used to doing these Instagram-scam apps. So used to that - they even order fake reviews about the wrong topic.

Now to the German reviews - they are a bit more on topic. The content doesn’t matter here, you do not need to know any German. It is more about the metadata:

0姐的霸气你不懂TCy and H弦久2VG just cannot get enough of the app. Along with hundreds of other commenters who speak perfect German but have seemingly random half-latin half-chinese names. I am in no way intending to make assumptions based on race and nationality here, but comparing the percentage of Chinese reviewers to the percentage of Chinese people living in Germany, we can say that it is plain impossible to have only people with these names rate the app in that region. I also doubt that anyone in China picks these kinds of usernames. Now to the review texts - wait for it:

Two people wrote these EXACT reviews already.. under my app, with German names. Oh, and did I mention they wrote these on my app 3 years prior to that?

Point being: To make these fake reviews look legitimate, the scammers have scraped reviews of MY application. That is what I have called “review scraping” earlier in this article. Just look at the original reviews on MY app that the scammer has copied:

These were among the first reviews my app has received shortly after its launch in 2017. The scammer scraped the review texts from my app and put the reviews on their own app.

Do your remember the first UK review screenshot above with the text that says “Good but needs improvements”? Unsurprisingly, it is the title of the top US review on MY app.

The whole “Good but needs improvements” review was initially posted on MY app

The last example I would like to present you here shows negative review texts on positive 5* ratings. Not perfectly uncommon (in some countries, 1 is the best grade and they apply that logic to a star-review-system), but very unusual when it happens to ALL reviews. And the reviews, again, can be found posted under other apps from years ago if you google their review texts.

Perfect score on the reviews from people that seem to hate the app?

Enough for the ratings. If you feel bored, you can browse them by using any metrics analyzer. I do not want to advertise anything here but to give them credit, the screenshots are taken from the Sensortower website. They have a very liberal free plan.

If you find the ratings funny, get ready for the App Store listing:

  • The developer claims it is the “Top Rated” app - technically not a lie when you look at the data above, the problem is how it got there.
  • The developer uses screenshots… my screenshots!

The developer could not even bother taking their own screenshots, it just HAD to be something taken straight from my app. But I have to give credit where credit is due - the screenshot was nudged down by 40px to make room for the “Top Rated” ribbon. This would be absolutely hilarious if the app disappeared after a day or two. But when someone copy&pastes your assets, Apple does not take action for a full year and allows you to be put out of business… Actually I cannot even sleep well because this angers me so much.

So this was one app. As I said before, I am 100% confident that my assumptions are correct. If there is anything questionable about any of this and you are somehow able to explain how everything listed here is legitimate, feel free to let me know. But I highly doubt there is a second opinion on this. This is what you would put in a textbook as an exaggerated example - except that it is real.

Let us take a look at another offender: The app has the same name as the previous example, except that instead of a minus (-) it carries a plus (+) in its name. The practices, surprisingly, are very similar but with a few changes:

Probably because the “Asian reviews in European countries” scheme started to get a bit too obvious, the developer has only bought ratings instead of reviews.

Just for an explanation: A review is a rating with a text in it. Only buying ratings makes the scam less visible in Sensortower because unlike how it is done with reviews, the App Store does not list individual ratings. It only lists ratings as a whole which makes it harder to track down malicious bulk rating purchases.

As you can see, the review section is more balanced among positive and negative reviews but the ratings show a distribution strongly focussed on the higher end of the spectrum (i.e. tons of 5* reviews that do not reflect the ratings). I can assure you that the app is awfully slow (kind of like mine was a long long time ago). But how come we are actually seeing some seemingly “real” positive reviews here?

The app forces you to review the app before you can actually use it. It blocks the (already very small) Apple Watch screen until you click the popup, open the companion iOS app and hit the “Review” button there. This, of course, goes against App Review Guidelines 3.1.2(a) Permissible uses:

Apps must not force users to rate the app, review the app, download other apps, or other similar actions in order to access functionality, content, or use of the app.

I do not agree with every decision App Review has made regarding my apps. App Review has also caused me a lot of sleepless nights and there are many more stories of seemingly decent apps that never made it to the App Store. But not blocking content until a user gifts you a rating is a decent rule, and I am very confident that every reasonable developer shares that point of view. Basically, this is a perfect blueprint on how to camouflage fake reviews: Just FORCE real people to mix tons of reviews in between to make your fake ratings go unnoticed in order to get ahead of the competitors.

The last thing I want to point out is another violation of the App Store rules that misleads people into downloading the seemingly perfect app:

Apart from the doctored screenshots that look nothing like the real app, the app claims to be able to send voice messages. This was indeed a fairly difficult feature for me to implement. So I understand everyone that has some initial trouble to achieve this. However, I have no understanding for someone falsely advertising this feature, putting it behind a paywall, and after being purchased, telling you that this feature is “coming soon” which is a violation of 5.6 Developer Code of Conduct:

Customer trust is the cornerstone of the App Store’s success. Apps should never prey on users or attempt to rip-off customers, trick them into making unwanted purchases, force them to share unnecessary data, raise prices in a tricky manner, charge for features or content that are not delivered, or engage in any other manipulative practices within or outside of the app.

User review that complains about an advertised feature, the promise to unlock the feature with a subscription, then get told that this feature is not available yet.

Unfortunately, despite having these rules in place, me reporting these practices did not change what this developer is doing or at make Apple remove/reset the fraudulent reviews.

Why do I care so much? Obviously because my business suffers a lot from having these apps show up above me in the search results. Users see an app with an appropriate rating and another one with a phenomenal rating. I cannot blame the users. When they try two apps with perfect ratings that do not work well, why would they give the third search result, MY app, a shot if it promises the same things? Because they do not know that my app - unlike the other two - actually delivers, they are now stuck with paying for these fake apps and often are unaware of the fact that you can request refunds in order to switch to an app that works (especially when the [real] app has worse [honest] ratings).

Why should you as a customer care? Apple is known for their strict review process and their very restrictive App Store. Apple sells you the story of the App Store being a safe environment to download apps. You have probably heard about the fake VPN scams cashing in $200k+ that Apple did nothing against for months or about how there is literal malware on the App Store. FlickType developer Kosta Eleftheriou, who is in a similar situation, has also made unsuccessful attempts at reporting such behavior and only a Twitter story gaining traction eventually reached the right people at Apple.

Mistakes can happen, that is for sure. But when people report malicious behavior and Apple refuses to take action, what can we make of that?

Do we really have to get media outlets to report on issues before the company in charge reacts to them? Would it not be in Apple’s best interest, instead of waiting for a tweet to earn thousands of retweets, to just react to the preceding user report?

I do understand that Apple cannot just blindly ban apps that have an Asian fake review in their ratings. If that was the case, people would just order fake reviews on each other to get the competition banned. But deleting the fraudulent reviews/ triggering a ratings reset should be THE LEAST that Apple could do to make the App Store a level playing field. One would think that Apple cares about their customers as well as developers who bring content to their stores.

So how DOES Apple “manage” reports? You basically get one of the following responses:

A) Thank you for providing a screenshot of those reviews.B) We are investigating this reported issue and will contact you if more information is needed.C) We can assure you our case has been routed to the appropriate Apple teams for review and consideration.

And that is the last thing you will ever hear from them. There is no follow-up as in “we did not find any wrongdoing” or “we have contacted the developer”, there is no transparency. One developer DID change something I have reported, but only on the iPhone app, not in the Watch Extension. Was it due to my report? Was it by coincidence? Did Apple miss checking the Watch Extension as well? Should I contact Apple again to make them aware of it if my report has triggered the change? Or would contacting them again only lower my reputation at Apple? How should I decide if they do not tell me if/what they have done? Unless they let you know the outcome, you literally have no way of knowing what you can do to improve this situation and if a follow-up on your side would be appreciated by Apple. However, given that they did not seem to care much about me here at all, I doubt that “Report” button does anything to begin with except for triggering the robotic response above.

You will understand that I feel misunderstood.

Now after all these discrepancies and plain violations, one may still argue that these apps are just better? Of course, my point of view is subjective, but for a comparison, take a look at how long these apps take to launch up. If you cannot be bothered to watch the full video, my app takes 5 seconds to load up, these apps take 10 times longer than that. No one right in their mind would give them a better rating for taking 1000% as much to even launch up, yet alone for selling features that are not at all part of the app. Maybe one person would do that, but not thousands.

You may ask yourself why I took the effort to write all that down as the wrongdoing of these developers could not be more obvious and it can be spotted on first sight. But that is exactly why I am absolutely baffled at Apple’s response to me - it is because it could not be more obvious. I just do not understand Apple’s reaction to any of this.

If you have made it to this paragraph, thank you so much for reading through all of this. If you are an Apple employee, I beg you to reconsider. If you are not an Apple employee but you see how I have a point here, I would forever be grateful if you shared this story. There must be a critical mass where at some point someone at Apple just HAS to see it in their feed. If you helped me reaching that critical mass you would make me a happier person.

The purpose of this story is not to gain traction for my app as I serve a niche market anyway. But after reading through all of this, of course you have a right to know who I am and what I do. I am Alexander Nowak and my business that is being killed right now is XAN Software GmbH & Co. KG (sorry about the cryptic letters, German tax law). If you fit in the niche of using an Apple Watch AND if you are a WhatsApp user AND if you feel the need to connect these two things, then you probably know and use my app already.

The app has come a long way since its first release in 2017 which is why I cannot give up just yet on something that I, so far in my young life, can call my lifework. The app’s name was mentioned in the email that I quoted in the beginning of the article and I currently rank behind the two scam apps. I do not blame new users who get tricked by fake reviews, being okay with being scammed and not looking for alternatives. I blame the offenders for pulling this scam and I blame Apple for not taking action against them and allowing their users to be treated this way.

If you have any questions or generally want to get in touch with me, feel free to email me at alexwatchchat@gmail.com. I also have an inactive Twitter (I find the reply system confusing when there are multiple threads) but I will be active for the next few days if you tweet me at https://twitter.com/WatchChatInfo

Thank you so much for honoring me with a piece of your free time by reading this story - I really hope you have found this interesting and maybe the information here can even help you in one way or another.

Alex

Addendum

Some notable screenshots, ratings and reviews for completeness

Please note that virtually every Apple Watch app gets tons of bad “can’t set up/install” reviews. This is due to a long-living watchOS bug. What I screenshot here are ratings that describe the actual scam.

WatchApp - for Whatsapp:

IAP to unlock the app’s only feature. Violation of App Store Guidelines misleading users to get an app with “free” content.
All top 3 reviews are from English names, remaining top 9 all Asian - on the GERMAN App Store
User calls me “Alex”. Which is my name - the problem is that it’s not my app. The rest of the ratings text, surprisingly, are random phrases (that make no sense in combination) that have been copied from numerous reviews on MY app.
Top 2 review on the US App Store praises my app - except that it’s on the competitor app’s review section (with Asian names)
Top 2 review on the GB App Store is THE SAME review that mentions my app and how quick I respond. This review has been posted on MY app 2 years ago. Top 3 review is the same as Top 1 review on US App Store

WatchApp+ for WhatsApp:

Impossible-to-dismiss popup forcing users to review the app.
Russian user points out the false promise of the in-app payment and the poor soul doesn’t know how to cancel
The app promises to be able to display profile pictures. The catch is that it can’t. Remember, on paper this app is the best-rated app out there.
Spanish user understands the scam. It would be nice if more people did. Or at least someone Apple.

Edit — February 9th 4PM CET: One of the apps, the WatchApp+ (plus) app is unavailable on the App Store as of right now. We don’t have any information yet as to why that has happened. My points of course still hold true so I am not going to remove any part of the story. The other app mentioned as well as many more apps being called out on Twitter are still online. We still have work to do. Thank you for your support for a better App Store.

Edit — February 10th 3AM CET: Both scams are online again.

Developer of the WatchChat for WhatsApp on Apple Watch app