A new report from TechCrunch reveals that a number of developers are taking advantage of Apple’s in-app subscription model to trick users into signing up for expensive recurring plans. While the apps in question aren’t always running blatantly afoul of Apple’s App Store Guidelines, they do appear to be skirting the guidelines by internationally confusing and misleading users with promises of “free trials” that require payment after only a few days. TechCrunch notes that the worst offenders appear to be in the “Utilities” category, where apps like QR code readers, document scanners, translators, and weather apps are placing in the Top Grossing apps chart not far below legitimate leaders like Fortnite and Netflix.
The report provided a handful of bad actors as an example of what is going on, such as a scanner app that’s raking in $14.3 million per year that, amidst 340,000 reviews and an average rating of 4.7, still manages to have more than a few complains from users who feel that they were scammed by the app, which constantly prompts users to sign up for a three-day trial that leads to a $4–5/month subscription. Another example was a QR Code reader found by Forbes that was tricking users into a $156/year subscription, resulting in an annual revenue of $5.3 million for the developers, according to Sensor Tower metrics, and reaching the 220th place among Top Grossing apps. As with the scanner app, the “free” QR Code reader immediately starts prompting users to upgrade by starting a three-day “free trial” that converts to a $156 annual subscription for something that the iPhone camera app can now do natively. A third example, Weather Alarms, was actually pulled from the App Store after TechCrunch spoke to Apple about it, more likely because this particular app was using the more deceptive tactic of using a “dark pattern” button to trick users into signing up for a $20/month to receive weather alerts. Even though Apple has now removed the app, however, TechCrunch notes that developers have been complaining about the app for months, and that Apple even featured it on the screen at WWDC.
While Apple does provide a system-level prompt in iOS that explains the details of a subscription and asks for confirmation before proceeding, preventing developers from blatantly deceiving users by lying about subscription terms, as TechCrunch notes, for many users this is “the fine print” that doesn’t get read, and with recent iOS versions, now appears as part of a Touch ID or Face ID prompt, rather than the more obvious and distinct modal alert dialog box that used to be presented to the user, and Touch ID users can even find themselves accidentally confirming a purchase just by having their thumb resting on the home button. Further, apps may even be designed to guide users to the right button to tap, or create a sense of urgency that pushes users to confirm the iOS prompt without taking the time to read it, and many users don’t understand that free trails automatically convert to subscriptions without any further confirmation — something that’s again explained on the purchase confirmation screen, but not in the apps themselves, which only suggest a “Free Trial.”
As TechCrunch notes, Apple also doesn’t make it particularly obvious how to go about cancelling subscriptions. Although a support document outlines the process, it requires several taps to dig into the subscription management page. The only way to access the subscription details from within the app itself is to attempt to subscribe again, at which point a system-level prompt notifies you that you’re already subscribed and provides a “Manage” button — a non-intuitive option, to say the least. Similarly, even deleting an app from your iOS device won’t cancel any active subscriptions, which can confuse users who may expect that removing the app should remove everything associated with it; in the very least, it would be helpful if Apple would include a prompt advising users of any active subscriptions when deleting an app, similar to the prompt used for iCloud storage.
Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines do clearly state, under Permissible Uses that “Apps that attempt to trick users into purchasing a subscription under false pretenses or engage in bait-and-switch practices will be removed from the App Store and you may be removed from the Apple Developer Program.”, although this still leaves the question open as to what constitutes “tricking” a user; placement of “dark pattern” buttons obviously qualify, but it’s more debatable whether simply nagging a user crosses that line.
Note that users can also visit reportaproblem.apple.com to dispute any iTunes purchases they have made, and in the case of in-app subscriptions, selecting “Meant to purchase a different subscription” will allow the user to explain the situation and receive an immediate refund.