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Apple’s new App Store Guidelines aim to crack down on fraud and scams

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Apple today is releasing a new version of its App Store Review Guidelines, its lengthy document that dictates the rules that apps must abide by in order to be published to its App Store. Among the more notable changes rolling out today are several sections that will see Apple taking a harder stance on App Store fraud, scams and developer misconduct, including a new process that aims to empower other developers to hold bad actors accountable.

One of the key updates on this front involves a change to Apple’s Developer Code of Conduct (Sections 5.6 and 5.6.1-5.6.4 of the Review Guidelines).

This section has been significantly expanded to include guidance stating that repeated manipulative or misleading behavior or other fraudulent conduct will lead to the developer’s removal from the Apple Developer Program. This is something Apple has done for repeated violations, it claims, but wanted to now ensure it was clearly spelled out in the guidelines.

In an entirely new third paragraph in this section, Apple says that if a developer engages in activities or actions that are not in accordance with the developer code of conduct, they will have their Apple Developer account terminated.

It also details what, specifically, must be done to restore the account, which includes providing Apple with a written statement detailing the improvements they’ve made, which will have to be approved by Apple. If Apple is able to confirm the changes have been made, it may then restore the developer’s account.

Apple explained in a press briefing that this change was meant to prevent a sort of catch and release scenario where a developer gets caught by Apple, but then later reverts their changes to continue their bad behavior.

As part of this update, Apple added a new section about developer identity (5.6.2). This is meant to ensure the contact information for developers provided to Apple and customers is accurate and functional, and that the developer isn’t impersonating other, legitimate developers on the App Store. This was a particular issue in a high-profile incident of App Store fraud which involved a crypto wallet app that scammed a user out of his life’s savings (~$600,000) in Bitcoin. The scam victim had been deceived because the app was using the same name and icon as a different company that made a hardware crypto device, and because the scam app was rated five stars. (Illegitimately, that is.)

Related to this, Apple clarified the language around App Store discovery fraud (5.6.3) to more specifically call out any type of manipulations of App Store charts, search, reviews and referrals. The former would mean to crack down on the clearly booming industry of fake App Store ratings and reviews, which can send a scam app higher in charts and search.

Meanwhile, the referral crackdown would address consumers being shown incorrect pricing outside the App Store in an effort to boost installs.

Another section (5.6.4) addresses issues that come up after an app is published, including negative customer reports and concerns and excessive refund rates, for example. If Apple notices this behavior, it will investigate the app for violations, it says.

Of course, the question here is: Will Apple actually notice the potential scammers? In recent months, a growing number of developers believe Apple is allowing far too many scammers to fall through the cracks of App Review.

One particular thorn in Apple’s side has been Fleksy keyboard app founder Kosta Eleftheriou, who is not only suing Apple for the revenue he’s personally lost to scammers, but also formed a sort of one-man bunco squad to expose some of the more egregious scams to date. This has included the above-mentioned crypto scam; a kids game that actually contained a hidden online casino; and a VPN app scamming users out of $5 million per year, among many others.

The rampant fraud taking place on the App Store was also brought up during Apple’s antitrust hearing, when Georgia’s Senator Jon Ossoff asked Apple’s Chief Compliance Officer Kyle Andeer why Apple was not able to locate scams, given they’re “trivially easy” to identify.

Apple downplayed the concerns then, and continues to do so through press releases like this one, which noted how the App Store stopped over $1.5 billion in fraudulent transactions in 2020.

But a new update to these guidelines seems to be an admission that Apple may need a little help on this front. It says developers can now directly report possible violations they find in other developers’ apps. Through a new form that standardizes this sort of complaint, developers can point to guideline violations and any other trust and safety issues they discover. Often, developers notice the scammers whose apps are impacting their own business and revenue, so they’ll likely turn to this form now as a first step in getting the scammer dealt with.

Another change will allow developers to appeal a rejection if they think there was unfair treatment of any kind, including political bias. Previously, Apple had allowed developers to appeal App Store decisions and suggest changes to guidelines.

Apple told us it has 500 app reviewers covering 81 languages who see new scenarios daily that have to be accounted for in updated guidelines and policies. Apple says it takes what it learns from these individual issues it encounters to invest in its systems, algorithms and training so it can prevent similar issues in the future. The company believes the new Code of Conduct rules, in particular, will give it the tools needed to better crack down on App Store fraud.

The rules about scams are only a handful of the many changes rolling out with today’s updated App Store Review Guidelines.

There are a few others, however, also worth highlighting:

  • Apple clarified rules around “hookup” apps to ensure developers understand porn and prostitution are not allowed on the App Store — often an issue with the fly-by-night hookup apps, which bait and switch users.
  • Creator content apps are instructed that they must follow rules for user-generated content, when applicable, meaning they must have content blocking, reporting and robust moderation.
  • Apple added the ability for licensed pharmacies and licensed cannabis dispensaries to facilitate purchasing, provided they’re legal and geogated.
  • Apps that report criminal activity require the developers to work with local law enforcement. (Citizen is a recent example of an app gone awry when users hunted down the wrong person. That level of carelessness may be coming to an end now.)
  • Bait-and-switch marketing and ads about app pricing isn’t allowed.
  • Cellular carrier apps can now include other kinds of subscription apps besides music and video services.
  • Apple clarifies that developers can communicate on email with anyone, but says they can’t target customers acquired through the App Store with messages about how to make purchases outside of the App Store.
  • Apple has enough drinking game apps. Stop sending them in.
  • Apps that offer account creation also have to offer account deletion.
  • Other clarity was added around in-app purchases for gift cards, app metadata, bug fix submissions and more. But these were not major changes.

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