Security firm Avast has discovered three fraudulent VPN apps that were downloaded by thousands of iOS users.
Avast (opens in new tab) said the apps -- Beetle VPN, Buckler VPN and Hat VPN Pro -- overcharged users, didn’t provide the services they promised and were a form of “fleeceware” that charged exorbitant subscription rates once their free-trial periods expired.
Data from mobile apps intelligence firm Sensor Tower shows that the apps have been downloaded more than 420,000, 271,000 and 96,000 times, respectively, over the past year.
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The apps in question market themselves as VPN services and charge users up to $9.99 every week following a three-day free trial.
Each app has a high App Store rating between 4.6 to 4.8, but Avast warns that many user reviews could be fake as they’ve been written similarly and are all suspiciously overenthusiastic.
Avast also found less favourable reviews claiming that the apps were scams, as well as privacy policies that were “very similar” in terms of language and structure.
'Fleeceware a gray area'
Although researchers were successful in installing and purchasing subscriptions for the apps, they couldn’t set up VPN connections and were instead prompted to sign up for subscriptions despite already having done so -- particularly frustrating considering that good cheap VPNs aren't difficult to come by.
Nikolaos Chrysaidos, head of mobile threats & security at Avast, warned: “Fleeceware apps fall into a gray area, because they are not malicious per se, they simply charge users absurd amounts of money for weekly, monthly or yearly subscriptions for features that should be offered at much lower costs.
“In this case, the VPNs are being sold for $9.99 (USD) a week, when trustworthy VPNs cost ten times less. These apps are not behaving maliciously so they circumvent screening processes to be added to the official app stores’ that users trust.
He urged users to do their research before paying for such apps: “With many people turning to VPN apps to protect their data while working remotely, this illustrates how important it is for users to research VPN apps before installing them, including who is behind the product, their track record with other products and user reviews, and experience in offering security and privacy apps.”
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