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The Windows Store is a Cesspool of Scams — Why Doesn’t Microsoft Care?

microsoft-windows-8.1-store-scams

Microsoft’s Windows Store is a mess. It’s full of apps that exist only to scam people and take their money. Why doesn’t Microsoft care that their flagship app store is such a cesspool?

It’s now been more than two years since Windows 8 was released, and this has been a problem the entire time, and it is getting worse. If Microsoft was trying to offer a safe app store to Windows users, they’ve failed.

Update:

Since this article was published and spread around the world, Microsoft has done a lot of cleanup in the Windows Store, removed 1500 scam applications, and has pledged to keep it clean.

We’re happy that they responded and cleaned things up, but only time will tell if they will keep it clean or not. Note: there’s still a lot more scam applications that they haven’t yet removed, so continue to beware until this mess is fully clean.

The Store is Full of Scams, And They’re Easy to Find

This problem isn’t a secret. Search the Windows Store for any popular app and you’ll see all kinds of junk. For example, here’s what happens when we search for VLC in the Windows Store:

vlc-windows-store-scams

From the screenshot above, you’d be forgiven for thinking there are a lot of official VLC apps. There aren’t — many apps are just copying VLC’s trademark icon to make themselves look legitimate.

Luckily, VLC actually offers an official app for Windows 8, so “VLC for Windows 8″ is the first app in the list. In addition to various apps pretending to be VLC itself, there are paid apps offering a “VLC download.” These apps exist to trick you into buying them — after you do, they give you a link to download the free VLC application. Hopefully they’ll link you to the real one and not one filled with malware!

Included in the list is “VLC Player Download” for $4.99. Its description says, “this app helps the users to know how to download install and why it is.” If that’s too expensive for you, you can also get “Download Vlc Player” for $1.99 or “download vlc media player” for $1.29.

We aren’t digging deep into the Store looking for this stuff. It’s what pops up on the first page when we search for a popular app.

vlc-player-download-scams-in-windows-store

Search for another popular application — like iTunes or Firefox — and you’ll see similar useless garbage applications. It’s even worse than VLC when these applications don’t have official apps in the Store. All that comes up are fake apps pretending to be the real thing.

For iTunes, there’s even an $8.99 app that “helps user to know how to use and download iTunes.” These apps are clearly using Apple’s official iTunes graphics without permission, and some of them have screenshots of the iTunes desktop application on their app page.

itunes-windows-store-scams

Here’s how to really download iTunes — plug “iTunes” into Google or just head to Apple’s website. Skip the scammy Windows Store.

Editor’s Note:

While doing fact-checking to verify this article, we’ve discovered the problem is even deeper than we had initially imagined. Within half an hour we managed to find fake paid versions of Adobe Flash Player, Firefox, Pandora, IMDB, Candy Crush Saga, Wechat, WhatsApp, uTorrent, Picasa, Bluestacks, Minecraft, Spotify, Google Hangouts, Picasa, Clash of Clans, Blender 3D, and a lot more.

Because they are using the real name and logo for each of these scams, and only the fine print on some of these scam apps will let you know that you aren’t downloading the real thing… a lot of people have mistakenly paid for them. For instance, David in the next screenshot thought he was buying the Bluestacks player, only to find out it was a scam, and he wants a refund. We don’t blame you, David, and hopefully you get your refund!

We found many similar comments from people that had been tricked into paying for and downloading a fake application.

To further prove that something is deeply wrong, one of the many publishers of these scam applications just calls themselves “Google Chrome,” and they make a dozen fake applications.

The Store Even Pollutes System Search

Worse yet, the Windows Store is now integrated with the system search feature. Search for an application using the Start screen search or search charm and these garbage apps from the Windows Store will appear. For example, whenever I use the system search feature to launch Firefox, I see a link to install “Firefox Training Lite” from the Windows Store.

No one needs a Windows Store app that will charge for Firefox tutorials when tutorials are available all over the web for free. Windows desktop users shouldn’t have this junk shoved in their faces.

windows-store-scams-in-windows-8.1-system-search

Microsoft Paid For Quantity — They Just Want a Big Store

Microsoft hasn’t been encouraging quality apps. Instead, they just want quantity. In March, 2013, Microsoft ran a promotion where they paid developers $100 for each app they submitted to the Windows Store or Windows Phone Store. They paid up to $2000 to each developer. Here’s the page from Archive.org describing the “Keep The Cash” promotion. Microsoft has scrubbed the official pages about this from their MSDN website.

So, if you’re a developer who spent months creating an amazing app, you only got $100. if you’re a developer who could pump out twenty terrible apps in a few weeks, you’d get $2000. Microsoft’s promotion encouraged developers to do the minimum amount of possible work and create a bunch of bad apps.

We don’t know for sure whether any of these scam apps netted their developers some bonus money from Microsoft. But we can see that Microsoft’s attitude toward the Windows Store is quantity over quality. They just want a large number of apps without caring how good they actually are.

Microsoft trumpeted reaching 100,000 apps, then 200,000 apps, and then finally 400,000 apps in April, 2014 (This is for the Windows Store and Windows Phone Store combined). They want a large number of apps so they can talk about how big the Windows Store is. If they actually removed all these scam apps, their store would be smaller.

By now, we’ve all hopefully realized that just looking at the number of apps in an app store is meaningless. What really matters are the apps people want to use and how good they are. Getting to 400,000 apps by allowing a store full of scams is not something we should applaud Microsoft for.

microsoft-keep-the-cash-promotion

Microsoft Has People Reviewing and Approving These Apps

Here’s one of the most shocking parts of this. People from Microsoft are actually examining each of these scammy apps, checking their content, and approving them. Here’s part of what Microsoft says happens whenever a developer submits an app to the store. This is part of the “Certification” process that checks an app before it’s available to users:

Content compliance: Our certification testers install and review your app to test it for content compliance. The amount of time this takes varies depending on how complex your app is, how much visual content it has, and how many apps have been submitted recently.”

That’s right — every single scam app in the Windows Store, including that $8.99 app for downloading iTunes, has been installed by a Microsoft certification tester. Its content has been audited for compliance to Microsoft’s policies. Clearly, Microsoft has no problem with scams in their store — either that or they aren’t actually auditing apps like they say they are. Both explanations reflect poorly on Microsoft.

There’s a way to report Windows Store apps to Microsoft, but why should we even bother? Microsoft has checked all these apps and put their stamp of approval on that scammy content. Would they even pull these apps down if we reported them, or do they think these apps are fine?

report-windows-store-app-to-microsoft

How Google and Apple Do It

For a quick comparison, let’s look at how other app stores deal with this problem. Here’s what happens when we search for iTunes on the Google Play Store. iTunes isn’t available for Google Play, so do we see scams? No. We see apps that can sync an Android device with iTunes and iTunes remotes. There’s no $8.99 app that will tell us how to install iTunes on our PC. None of the apps have copy-pasted Apple’s iTunes icon, either.

search-for-itunes-on-google-play

Here’s what happens when we search for Firefox on the iPad app store. Firefox isn’t available for iOS, so do we see scams here? No. Instead, we see a variety of third-party web browsers that someone looking for Firefox might be interested in. “Foxbrowser” might look like a Firefox imitation, but it’s a browser that includes built-in Firefox Sync. It’s not designed to trick users — it offers a useful feature to Firefox users.

apple-ipad-app-store-firefox

Take note, Microsoft — this is how proper, grown-up platforms run a real app store that isn’t full of scams.

The Store is Supposed to Get Rid of Scams, Not Host Them

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Why doesn’t Microsoft care about the cesspool of garbage they’re hosting and offering to hundreds of thousands of Windows 8.1 users? The only answer we have so far is that Microsoft doesn’t care how good apps are — they’re just approving everything to get as many apps as possible. It’s been nearly two years now, and we haven’t seen any indication Microsoft actually cares about the pile of garbage they’re hosting.

We wish Microsoft actually cared about the Store and the apps in it. The Store is supposed to be a nice, safe environment for average Windows users. They should be able to open the Windows Store and download apps without getting malware — it could be safer than getting apps from the web. Instead, these normal users might just end up purchasing scam apps instead of getting infected by malware.

The only difference is that, for every scam app sold in the Windows Store, Microsoft gets a cut.


Image Credit: “Keep the Cash” Image from Jennifer Marsman at MSDN Blogs

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 08/17/14