Around the same time Apple was touting its sizable App Store revenue growth this week, developer and noted App Store critic Kosta Eleftheriou brought to light what appeared to be yet another App Store scammer hiding in plain sight. On Twitter, Eleftheriou documented the earnings for a music syncing app called AmpMe, which claims to boost your music’s volume by syncing it across devices, including friends’ phones, Bluetooth speakers and computer speakers. AmpMe, he found, had been charging an incredible $10 per week for this basic service, which it had been promoting on the App Store by way of fake reviews.
The AmpMe iOS app doesn’t require a subscription to use some of its features, but does if you want to synchronize your music to other devices — the main reason users likely downloaded the app in the first place.
Eleftheriou noted this offering was priced at what he called “an absurd $10/week (~$520/year).” The subscription also auto-renews, as most in-app subscriptions do. And while Apple makes it easy to sign up and stay subscribed, subscription cancelations can only be performed from your Account page’s Subscriptions section, which you can get to from the App Store or the iPhone’s Settings app. You can’t cancel inside the app itself.
AmpMe hadn’t been trying to trick users about its pricing, at least. The sign-up page clearly stated its free trial was offered for just three days and would then be followed by a $9.99 per week subscription.
But where the app ran afoul of the App Store’s rules was how it marketed itself to potential customers.
AmpMe had purchased a ton of fake reviews, as evidenced by its large slate of five-star ratings associated with nonsensical names. These names — like Nicte Videlerqhjgd or Elcie Zapaterbpmtl, for example — looked like someone just mashed buttons on a keyboard. But the reviewers were sure to have left positive feedback, like “It’s sooo good!” or “super useful” or “Don’t need any other music apps!”
(Interestingly, these same reviewers left glowing five-star reviews on other apps, too, and all on the same day! That’s suspicious!)
The fake reviews gave the app an overall rating of 4.3 stars on the App Store, making it seem like a legitimate and useful music syncing tool. Meanwhile, the real reviews — where legitimate App Store customers complained about the outrageous pricing, basic functionality or the obvious fake reviews — were drowned out by the spam.
Apple had not taken action on this deceptively marketed app for years. And to make matters worse, it had even promoted it several times through App Store editorial collections, Eleftheriou pointed out.
The conclusion he draws from this is that not only is Apple lax on hunting down App Store scammers, it may actually be disincentivized to do so because of scam apps’ earnings potential. (The only other possible conclusion here is that Apple is just inept when it comes to keeping the App Store safe for consumers… which isn’t really a good look either.)
Citing data from Appfigures, Eleftheriou notes AmpMe has pulled in $13 million in lifetime revenue on the App Store, after Apple’s cut.
Another firm puts the figure even higher. Apptopia told TechCrunch the app has earned $16 million since it began monetizing through in-app purchases in October 2018; $15.5 million of that was through the App Store and another $500,000 came through Google Play. The majority (or 75%) of the in-app purchase revenue came from consumers in the U.S. To date, AmpMe has seen 33.5 million lifetime installs, 38% of which are from the U.S.
In a response provided to TechCrunch, AmpMe disputed some of the claims being made.
The company said its users aren’t paying $520 per year — what a $10 per week subscription would add up to if users stayed subscribed. Instead, AmpMe said across its paying users, its average yearly subscription revenue is around $75. This would indicate users are taking advantage of the free trial then canceling the subscription after some time. AmpMe also said that, internally, this reinforced its belief that its pricing is transparent and its opt-out procedures are easy.
The company did not, however, have a great answer as to why its App Store Listing is filled with fake reviews, opting to toss blame on an anonymous third party instead.
“Through the years, like most startups, we’ve hired outside consultants to help us with marketing and app store optimization. More oversight is needed and that’s what we are currently working on,” a statement sent by an unnamed AmpMe representative said. (They had signed the email “The AmpMe Team.”)
In addition, the company said it was responding to this recent feedback by releasing a new version of the app with a lower price point.
“We always adhere to Apple’s subscription guidelines and are continually working to ensure their high standards are met,” the email read. “We also respect and value the community’s feedback. Therefore, a new version of the app with a lower price has already been submitted to the App Store for review.”
That version has since gone live and sees the weekly subscription reduced to $4.99 from $9.99.
Today, Eleftheriou tells us it looks like a manual cleanup of the fake reviews is now underway.
On Monday at 11 AM, he documented the app had 54,080 reviews. By Tuesday at 9 PM, after AmpMe saw a fair bit of bad press, the app’s review count had dropped to 53,028. By 7 AM on Wednesday, the review count dropped again to 50,693. But the app’s overall rating hasn’t been meaningfully impacted. This could be because the reviews being removed are those submitted by the fake App Store users instead of the ones where the app was given a five-star rating but no review text or reviewer name is visible. That means the cleanup process will make it less obvious the app had purchased fake reviews.
Also of interest, perhaps, is AmpMe’s CEO: the Canadian technology entrepreneur Martin-Luc Archambault. His Wajam software-turned-adware was previously investigated by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC), and found to have violated Canadian internet privacy laws by collecting user data without consent. It also used several methods to evade detection by antivirus software, reports claimed at the time. When the OPC announced its findings, Archambault claimed the Canadian user data in question had been destroyed and Wajam had sold its assets to a Chinese company. Over its lifetime, the adware had been installed millions of times, the OPC’s report said.
In other words, this does not sound like someone who would be opposed to buying some fake reviews!
AmpMe hasn’t responded to further follow-up questions beyond its original statement, and Apple has not responded to a request for comment.
To date, AmpMe had raised $10 million in VC funding, per Crunchbase data.