Don’t Be Fooled: The Mac App Store Is Full of Scams

By Justin Pot on November 27th, 2016

microsoft-office-app-store

You love technology, but not everyone does. For many people computers are confusing, even scary. Malevolent actors know this, and try to deliberately trick people online. From ads that look like download buttons to ransomware pop-ups, the web is full of deception-based design, intended to take advantage of the less technically inclined.

In theory, this is part of why app stores are useful. Users afraid of being scammed on the open web can browse the Mac App Store with confidence, knowing that Apple’s walled garden will protect them.

Except it won’t.

Let’s Try to Buy Excel Together

Try to put yourself into the mental state of a novice computer user. You have a brand new iMac, and you want to edit some Excel spreadsheets. In the dock you find that App Store you’ve heard so much about, so you open it. You find the search bar, then type “Microsoft Excel.”

app-store-excel-search

The top result is something called “Office Bundle,” and costs $30. You click the result to read more.

office-bundle-templates

Look at that! This is the “easiest way to create high-quality Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations.” That’s exactly what you need! Let’s read a little more.

office-bundle-features

Reading that block of text, what do you suppose this download offers? Go ahead and guess.

Seriously: guess. I’ll wait.

It’s…templates. A $30, 293MB collection of templates, all of which are useless without Microsoft Office.

It’s possible for a collection of templates to be worth $30, and for all I know these are really great. But let’s review:

  • This is the top result if you search for “Microsoft Excel.”
  • The word “template” is not in the name of the product.
  • The word “template” is not in the product’s description.
  • The product’s description outlines several functions that are specific to Microsoft Office, and have  nothing to do with what customers will acquire by purchasing a collection of templates.
  • It’s literally impossible to find this product by searching for “templates.”

It’s easy to see that users could be deceived by this, and it’s hard to imagine that it’s not intentional on the developer’s part. Whatever the intention here, people were deceived:

office-bundle-reviews

Let’s be blunt: these customers were ripped off, and Apple pocketed $10 each. And you’ll only see these comments if you scroll past the two five star reviews that mention the word “app” numerous times. Both of those reviews, by the way, were left by accounts that haven’t reviewed any other apps in the Store.

Search for other Office applications and you’ll find more template bundles, disguised as official applications to varying degrees.

microsoft-word-mac-app-store

There are also several $20+ applications that put Microsoft’s free online version of Office into a dedicated browser. Then there are the actual “apps” capable of opening and editing Office files, many of which use terms like “Microsoft Word” in their names. They appear to be slightly modified versions of open source applications, but we’re not about to buy them to find out.

All of these fakes use Microsoft brands like Office, Word, and Excel in the product names. The logos aren’t one-to-one copies of Microsoft’s official logos, but they’re almost always the correct color and letter (blue “W” for Word, green “E” for Excel, etcetera).

We’ve talked about why the Mac App Store doesn’t have the applications you want, and the Microsoft Office Suite is among the applications you can’t get there. Maybe you already know this, but tell me: why should the average computer user be expected to? Scammy developers know that they can’t be, and are taking advantage of a hole in the market.

With the exception of OneNote and OneDrive, you cannot buy any official Office app from the Mac App Store. You have to purchase it directly from Microsoft, either for $150 or in the form of a yearly Office 365 subscription. (Alternatively, you can use Apple’s iWork suite, which probably came with your Mac, as well as the web version of Microsoft Office online or a free open source alternative like LibreOffice.)

This might seem obvious to you. It isn’t obvious to everyone, and the existence of the Mac App Store full of imitators serves to make this a lot more complicated. The walled garden isn’t protecting everyone.

These Scummy Apps Are All Over the App Store

We’ve focused on Microsoft Office because this is a particularly egregious example. But you don’t have to dig long to find similar problems.

Search for “Indesign” and you won’t find Adobe’s publishing tool, but you will find several bundles of tutorial videos with icons that mimic InDesign’s closely.

adobe-indesign

It’s not as clear that any of these applications are trying to deceive people, but it’s another case where it’s striking how closely these developers are mimicking official branding.

And other developers seem to be working some dark App Store SEO magic. Search for “Firefox” or “Chrome” and the top application is “Fast Browser,” a $1 app that hasn’t been updated since 2014.

firefox-fast-browser

Using this as your browser is a very, very bad idea.

And there’s all sorts of weirdness to be found elsewhere:

  • Search for “Adblock” and you’ll get a $2 application completely unaffiliated with the browser plugin with the same name.
  • Search for any website—Facebook, Gmail, anything—and you’ll find several dozen “apps” that do nothing more than open a browser window with the appropriate website. (Something that you can do for free with many browsers.)
  • Over the summer at least one Mac App Store app installed malware onto users’ Macs.
  • The App Store is also full of disk cleaners and memory cleaners, which you absolutely do not need.

We could go on. The point is that the App Store, which is supposed to protect users from deception, doesn’t seem to be doing a great job at that. There’s a lot of nonsense offered inside the walled garden.

Apple Needs to Clean Up the Mac App Store

Last year we outlined how the Windows Store was a cesspool of scams, a problem Microsoft has since been tackling. Apple, for their part, is making an effort to alleviate fake applications for iPhone and iPad users: the iOS App Store is currently being purged of outdated and broken applications.

But anyone who browses the Mac App Store regularly knows that this platform needs cleaning out too. Seemingly official applications of dubious value are way to easy to accidentally find by searching. It’s understandable that Apple wants the App Store to appear full, but leaving things seemingly designed to deceive people is hardly an answer.

Justin Pot is a staff writer for How-To Geek, and a technology enthusiast who lives in Hillsboro, Oregon. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, if you want. You don't have to.

  • Published 11/27/16
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