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How shady tricks can boost a shoddy app

Undercover reporters set out to test whether it was possible to buy fake reviews on the Apple and Google stores by launching their own poor quality app

The annual smartphone apps market is worth an estimated £17bn and is dominated by the two companies, which rely heavily on a customer recommendation system based on ratings and reviews.

During an investigation last year into how fake reviews were being used to manipulate the eBook bestseller list on Amazon, evidence emerged that the practice had spread to apps.

Spot the Faker!, a basic smartphone app consisting of two screens of yellow text that randomly displayed the words “true” or “false” at the press of a button, was deliberately designed to be ugly and unimpressive.

Despite that, it was cleared by quality checkers at Google and Apple and was released free to download anywhere in the world on January 13.

Companies offering fake reviews were not difficult to find. Simply typing terms such as “buy iStore reviews” and “buy Android app reviews” into Google’s search engine brought up listings for the likes of AppsViral, AppSuch and Social Marketeers.

Each had impressive websites carrying promises of improved app sales using their network of “genuine” reviewers. They also offered “installs”, a process that falsely creates the impression of multiple downloads of an app.

One package offered by AppSuch for $4,725 (£3,318) included 10,000 installs, 500 ratings and 500 reviews.

AppsViral assured potential clients that reviews come from “100% Real Users”, a lie revealed when confirmation of an order for 20 Android reviews costing $24 was accompanied by the reply: “Your work will complete in 2-6 days. Google Play store is updating so we will try to add them slowly and safely so that it will look natural :)”

AppsViral later advised the reporter to drip-feed fabricated iPhone reviews at a rate of 5-10 a week to avoid detection.

Systems used by Google to detect and remove fake reviews are only partially successful. At one point Google removed about 40% of the fake reviews for Spot the Faker! on its store, but AppsViral promised to “fix it soon” — and within hours had begun to post new reviews at no extra cost.

Google also deleted only the reviews, not the “sock puppet” accounts from which they had been posted.

Positive five-star reviews from the sock puppets that praised Spot the Faker! have helped to promote other companies and products.

They include three apps created by Jonathan Truelove, a casino and amusement arcade manager from Filey, in North Yorkshire. One of those apps — a hotel price comparison tool — had 72 five-star ratings, each from a sock puppet. Truelove, 42, declined to comment.

In some cases, fake positive reviews drown out criticism of apps by genuine customers. A photograph storage app available on Google Play, for example, had a number of complaints about images being deleted and passwords changed without permission.

However, these posts were hidden among more than 100 positive reviews, most identified as coming from sock puppet accounts.

One female customer claimed that her pictures had been replaced by pornographic images.

A “reverse-caller look-up” app had received 700 five-star reviews, which hugely outnumbered the handful of apparently genuine one-star reviews, including those warning it was a “scam”.

Another product by the same developer which claimed to be “the world’s first and only free background check App” also carried five-star reviews from sock puppets.

When a reporter tested the apps, they linked to fee-charging websites.

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