Think twice before trusting reviews online: Apple’s App Store and the Google Play store are both flooded with FAKE endorsements, report reveals
- A quarter of apps on one section of Google Play store ‘have suspicious reviews’
- Which? analysis also revealed the figure to be 17 per cent on Apple’s App Store
Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store are being flooded with fake reviews that are distorting the popularity of apps, a new investigation has revealed.
Up to a quarter of reviews in the health and fitness section of Google’s Play Store were suspicious, while for Apple’s equivalent 17 per cent appear fake.
The analysis by consumer group Which? suggests that millions of consumers could be unwittingly handing over their personal data or money to apps that have cheated their way to the top of the world’s two most prominent mobile app stores.
Such is the scale of the problem that Which? also found that fake reviews are being openly sold by brokers, who pay Google to appear at the top of its search results.
These services offer bulk downloads, reviews or upvotes to help push apps up the rankings, making them seem more reputable if they have been downloaded a huge number of times.
Apple warned that it will remove apps that haven’t been ‘updated in a significant amount of time’, giving developers just 30 days to update them
Such is the scale of the problem that Which? found that fake reviews are being openly sold by brokers, who pay Google to appear at the top of its search results. Very short reviews like those above were very likely to be fake, according to the analysis
One fake review broker site, called reviewlancer, claims to have sold nearly 53,000 reviews and exchanged more than 130,000 reviews.
Another – AppSally – offers review manipulation for many platforms and has featured in previous Which? fake review investigations, while there are also review trading groups on Facebook.
APPLE REVEALS IT REJECTED OR REMOVED OVER 1 MILLION MALICIOUS APPS FROM ITS APP STORE IN 2020
Apple rejected or removed more than 1 million malicious apps from its App Store and stopped more than $1.5 billion in potentially fraudulent transactions in 2020.
The US tech giant said its combination of ‘sophisticated technology and human expertise’ kept customers on its online store safe for the year.
Apple also deactivated 244 million customer accounts due to ‘fraudulent and abusive activity’, and rejected another 424 million attempted account creations for ‘patterns consistent with fraudulent and abusive activity’.
Which? researchers analysed almost 900,000 reviews across both the App store and Google Play between December 2022 and January 2023.
They also pretended to be developers looking for fake reviews for an app, and were approached by several users offering reviews for as little as £1.70.
Which? created a model based on four red flags — higher numbers of positive reviews, review ‘surges’ over a short space of time, reviews that are short in length and high subjectivity in five-star reviews.
The analysis revealed that apps on Google Play using paid-for reviews had a significantly higher proportion of five-star reviews — 60.5 per cent in the case of one dating app, compared to 9.7 per cent for market leader Tinder.
For the health app, five-star reviews made up 45.8 per cent of reviews, while Garmin – which makes fitness trackers – had just 6 per cent.
The research also showed that one in five (22 per cent) apps in Google Play’s games category raised all four of the red flags for suspicious reviews.
It was one in seven (15 per cent) for Apple’s equivalent.
Which? said another red flag was the apparent bulk uploads of reviews, where clusters of four and five-star feedback appeared over a few days, before another spike was seen a few weeks or months later.
The researchers said this suggested the app employing a review broker.
In comparison, reviews in well-known apps were found to trickle in constantly.
Rocio Concha, Which? director of policy and advocacy, said: ‘Apple and Google are failing to prevent fake and suspicious reviews infiltrating their app stores, leaving consumers at huge risk of being misled into downloading apps that have been boosted through unscrupulous tactics.’
The consumer group recommends that customers sort reviews by a variety of ways rather than just helpfulness or relevancy to avoid manipulated results.
It also suggests that people should be wary of a large number of five-star reviews.
Up to a quarter of reviews in the health and fitness section of Google’s Play Store were suspicious, while for Apple’s equivalent 17 per cent appear fake
Last year the Competition and Markets Authority opened a formal investigation into Amazon and Google over concerns that neither had been doing enough to tackle fake reviews on their sites.
The government is expected to introduce reforms to combat fake reviews with its Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill.
Ms Concha added: ‘Our latest findings illustrate why the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill is so badly needed in order to tackle fake reviews and the dominance of the tech giants, and finally make consumer protection laws fit for the digital age.’
Apple said that developers who attempted to cheat the system might have their apps removed.
Google did not comment on the analysis but said it had taken appropriate action against review brokers who used its search engine.
AppSally did not respond, while Reviewlancer appears to have been taken down.
THE TRILLION DOLLAR RISE OF APPLE
1976: Founders Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne created the company on April 1 1976 as they set about selling computer kits to hobbyists, each of which was built by Wozniak.
The first product was the Apple I.
1977: Apple released the Apple II in June, which was the first PC made for the mass market.
Steve Jobs unveils Apple Computer Corporation’s new Macintosh February 6, 1984 in California.
1981: Jobs became chairman.
1984: The Macintosh was introduced during an ad break for the Super Bowl and later officially unveiled during a launch event. It was discontinued a year later and Jobs left the firm.
1987: Apple released the Macintosh II, the first colour Mac.
1997: Apple announces it will acquire NeXT software in a $400 million deal that involves Jobs returning to Apple as interim CEO. He officially took the role in 2000.
The then Chief Executive Officer of Apple, Steve Jobs, with the iPhone
2001: Apple introduced iTunes, OS X and the first-generation iPod.
The first iPod MP3 music player was released on October 23, 2001, at an event in Cupertino and was able to hold up to 1,000 songs.
2007: Apple unveils the iPhone.
2010: The first iPad was unveiled.
2011: Jobs resigned in 2011 due to illness, handing the CEO title to Tim Cook. Jobs died in October from pancreatic cancer.
2014: Apple unveiled the Apple Watch. It also unveiled its first larger iPhones – the 6 and 6 Plus.
2015: After purchasing Beats from Dr Dre, Apple launched Apple Music to compete with Spotify and other music streaming services.
2016: Apple returned to its roots and announced the 4-inch iPhone SE. Meanwhile, the firm is embroiled in a legal battle with the FBI, involving the agency demanding access to the locked phone used by Syed Farook, who died in a shootout after carrying out a deadly December attack in San Bernardino, California with his wife. The court order was dropped on March 28 after the FBI said a third party was able to unlock the device.
2017: Apple introduces the iPhone X, which removes the home button to make way for a futuristic edge-to-edge screen design and a new FaceID system that uses advanced sensors and lasers to unlock phones with just the owner’s face.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs speaks at an Apple event at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.
2018: In a first for the company, Apple introduces new features in its latest operating system, iOS 12, that encourage users to manage and spend less time on their devices. The move was spawned by a strongly worded letter from shareholders that urged the firm to address the growing problem of smartphone addiction among kids and teenagers.
2019: In January, Apple reports its first decline in revenues and profits in a decade. CEO Tim Cook partly blamed steep declines in revenue from China.
2020: In March, Apple closes all its bricks and mortar retail stores outside of China in response to coronavirus.
2021: In an online virtual event in April CEO Tim Cook declared Apple’s goal of becoming carbon neutral for Earth Day. Later in the year the iPhone 13 was announced.
2022: In September the iPhone 14 was announced. One of the new features included a new sensor to detect if a user had been in a car crash as well as an improved camera system.
2023: So far this year Apple has brought back its ‘Home Pod’ after the first generation was discontinued. The ‘Home Pod’ can be seen as an alternative to Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home as it is powered by voice commands.
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