Not all that glitters on app stores is gold. Alongside countless real apps, there are also hundreds of imitations that often look genuine at first sight.

The sellers of these apps pretend to be selling a licensed product, but they are in fact almost empty software shells. Besides getting the money paid by users for these useless products, the fraudsters behind these fake and pseudo apps are sometimes looking to steal user data.

This problem affects not only the mobile operating systems of iOS, Android and Windows Mobile, but also the app stores for desktop operating systems such as Windows 10 or Mac OS. Fortunately there are ways to spot these fake apps.

One way is to look at the logo. “If you want to recognize a fake app in the overview in the store, you should look at the logo more closely,” says Timm Lutter from the German IT association Bitkom. Despite looking broadly similar to the genuine logo, there are often small differences and deviations.

It also helps to find the genuine logo and compare it with the one on the store, says IT journalist Alexander Spier. And if the app name differs even slightly from the original, alarm bells should start ringing. Another warning sign is if the app description has spelling mistakes or doesn’t describe the app’s features.

“The maker’s name is also an important point of reference,” Spier says. If the app is fake this often won’t match with the original developer name. The app’s reviews are also something to scrutinise. Nothing but positive assessments with no accompanying explanatory comments are suspicious, Spier says.

“Reviews can be bought,” warns Lutter. “It’s not enough to just rely on the good ones.” In fact the comments of disappointed users are often more reliable than the positive ones. You can also check out the number of downloads – “here you should be suspicious of a small number,” he says.

Then there are the free mobile apps that seek to make their money in other ways. “These often have an espionage function and seek to make use of the user’s contact data,” Spier says. “For example they send expensive text messages.”

If an app is harmless it’s usually enough just to uninstall it. “In the case of malware, however, you should usually reset the phone because some apps try to reinstall after you delete them,” says Spier.

If you paid for a fake app using your credit card you can contact the credit card company and ask for the money transfer to be stopped. You can also notify the store so that other users don’t fall into the same trap.

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