Around the same time Apple this week touted its significant App Store revenue growth, developer and well-known App Store critic Kosta Eleftheriou uncovered what appeared to be another App Store scammer hiding in plain sight. On TwitterEleftheriou documented the earnings for a music sync app called AmpMe, which claims to boost the volume of your music by syncing it across devices, including friends’ phones, Bluetooth speakers, and computer speakers. AmpMe, he found, had been charging an incredible $10 a week for this basic service, promoting it in the App Store through fake reviews.

The AmpMe iOS app doesn’t require a subscription to use some features, but it does if you want to sync your music to other devices – the main reason users probably downloaded the app in the first place.

Eleftheriou noted this offer was priced at what he called “an absurd $10/week (~$520/year)”. The subscription also renews automatically, as with most in-app subscriptions. And while Apple makes it easy to sign up and stay subscribed, unsubscribing can only be done through the Subscriptions section of your account page, which you can access through the App Store or the iPhone’s Settings app. You cannot cancel within the app itself.

At least AmpMe hadn’t tried to mislead users about pricing. The sign up page clearly stated that the free trial was only offered for three days and would be followed by a $9.99 per week subscription.

But where the app broke the rules of the App Store was how it marketed itself to potential customers.

AmpMe had bought a ton of fake reviews as evidenced by the large list of five star ratings associated with nonsensical names. These names — like Nicte Videlerqhjgd or Elcie Zapaterbpmtl, for example — looked like someone had just crushed buttons on a keyboard. But the reviewers were sure they had left positive feedback like “It’s sooo good!” or “super useful” or “No other music apps needed!”

(interesting, these same reviewers left glowing five star reviews also in other apps, and all on the same day! That’s suspicious!)

Notice how the exact same group of reviewers also left glowing 5-star reviews in another, unrelated app — and all on the same day.

The problem is widespread.

— Kosta Eleftheriou (@keleftheriou) January 12, 2022

The fake reviews gave the app an overall rating of 4.3 stars on the App Store, making it seem like a legitimate and useful music syncing tool. Meanwhile, the real reviews – where legitimate App Store customers complained about the outrageous prices, basic functionality or the obvious fake reviews – were drowned out by the spam.

Apple hadn’t taken any action against this deceptively marketed app for years. And to make matters worse, it had even promoted it multiple times through the App Store’s editorial collections, Eleftheriou noted.

The conclusion he draws from this is that Apple is not only lax in detecting App Store scammers, but that it may even be discouraged from doing so due to the revenue potential of scam apps. (The only other possible conclusion here is that Apple is simply inept when it comes to keeping the App Store safe for consumers…which isn’t exactly a good impression either.)

Citing data from Appfigures, Eleftheriou notes that AmpMe has raked in $13 million in lifetime revenue from the App Store following Apple’s cutbacks.

Another company estimates the figure even higher. Apptopia told TechCrunch that the app has earned $16 million since it began monetizing through in-app purchases in October 2018; Of that, $15.5 million went through the App Store and another $500,000 through Google Play. The majority (or 75%) of in-app purchase revenue came from consumers in the US. To date, AmpMe has seen 33.5 million lifetime installs, of which 38% are from the US

In a response to TechCrunch, AmpMe disputes some of the claims.

The company said its users aren’t paying $520 per year — which would be a $10-per-week subscription if users remained subscribed. Instead, AmpMe said for its paying users, the average annual subscription revenue is about $75. This would indicate that users take advantage of the free trial and then cancel the subscription after some time. AmpMe also said this internally reinforced its belief that pricing is transparent and opt-out procedures are straightforward.

However, the company didn’t have a good answer as to why the App Store listing is full of fake reviews, opting to put the blame on an anonymous third party instead.

“Over the years, like most startups, we’ve hired outside consultants to help us with marketing and app store optimization. More oversight is needed and we’re currently working on that,” said a statement from an unnamed AmpMe representative. (They had signed the “The AmpMe Team” email.)

In addition, the company said it was responding to this recent feedback by releasing a new version of the app with a lower price.

“We always adhere to Apple’s subscription guidelines and are constantly working to ensure their high standards are met,” the email read. “We also respect and value the feedback from the community. Therefore, a new version of the app with a lower price has already been submitted to the App Store for review.”

That version has since gone live and sees the weekly subscription reduced to $4.99 from $9.99.

Today, Eleftheriou tells us that it seems that a manual cleanup of the fake reviews is now underway.

At 11 a.m. on Monday, he documented that the app had 54,080 ratings. At 9 p.m. Tuesday, after AmpMe saw quite a bit of bad press, the app’s ratings had dropped to 53,028. On Wednesday at 7 a.m., the number of reviews had fallen again to 50,693. But the overall rating of the app has not been significantly affected. This could be because the reviews that are being removed are reviews submitted by the fake App Store users rather than the ones that gave the app a five-star rating, but no review text or reviewer’s name is visible. That means the cleanup process makes it less obvious that the app bought fake reviews.

Perhaps also interesting is the CEO of AmpMe: Canadian technology entrepreneur Martin-Luc Archambault. Its Wajam software turned adware was previously investigated by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) and found to have violated Canadian internet privacy laws by collecting user data without permission. It also used various methods to evade detection by antivirus software, reports claimed at the time. When the OPC released its findings, Archambault claimed that the Canadian user data in question had been destroyed and that Wajam had sold its assets to a Chinese company. During its lifetime, the adware was installed millions of times, according to the OPC report.

In other words, this doesn’t sound like anyone who would be against buying fake reviews!

AmpMe did not respond to further follow-up questions beyond the original statement, and Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

To date, AmpMe had raised $10 million in VC funding, according to Crunchbase data.

This post Music app AmpMe cuts prices after being accused of being an App Store scammer – TechCrunch

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