One of the better reasons to join the millions of Americans moving to streaming TV is to flee the junk fees of cable TV. But if you download the wrong remote-control app for a Roku media player, you might find yourself getting dinged for a new set of surcharges—$4.99, and not every month but every week.
That should be grist for an endless series of one-star reviews. But the third-party Roku remote app that iOS app developer Kosta Eleftheriou found has instead racked up an average of 4.5 stars out of 5 from almost 15,000 reviews.
As Eleftheriou, the San Francisco-based developer of the FlickType Apple Watch gesture-typing app, unpacked in a lengthy Twitter thread Friday morning, “Roku Remote Control – Roki” shows clear signs of benefiting from bulk-purchased favorable App Store ratings.
Roki’s favorable score seems to have led many iOS users to install the app, then willingly or unwittingly tap through one of two payment options: a $19.99 “lifetime” fee or a $4.99 weekly subscription rate.
A copy of this app I put on my own iPad mini 5 Friday morning flashed a dialog to choose between those plans (without the lifetime cost listed) almost immediately after its first launch.
Crime pays, Eleftheriou said, citing a net-income estimate of more than $1.5 million for Roki from the subscription analytics service Appfigures. That figure does not reflect Apple’s 30% take of first-year subscription revenue from an app.
The text of many individual reviews, as opposed to ratings posted without any commentary, tells another story.
“I accidentally hit the other option and when I tried to exit the app By hitting the circle button at the bottom of the phone it processed my payment,” one user wrote below a one-star assessment. “I haven’t got the slightest clue how to cancel this.”
Some of these reviews blame Roku for this third-party app, even though that San Jose, Calif., firm has long offered its own free mobile app, complete with remote-control capabilities for its streaming-media players.
Roku declined to comment beyond suggesting that users stick to its own app. Roki’s India-based developers did not answer an e-mail sent Friday morning.
“It’s past time Apple acknowledged the issue, and delivered a substantial overhaul of the ratings system,” Eleftheriou wrote in an email. He has been on a tear about App Store fraud since the start of the month, when he found a clone of FlickType charging users $7.99 a week for the privilege.
He said Apple ignored his attempts to report that ripoff through developer channels, leading him to take to Twitter instead. Company representatives eventually told him via email that the company had removed many of the apps he’d flagged but did not address his complaint about app ratings.
“At *no point* did they show even the slightest sign of acknowledging the broader issue or that they are responsible for the problem of fake ratings—which affects the livelihoods of hard-working honest developers as well as millions, if not billions, of App Store users,” Eleftheriou said.
Apple PR did not respond to an email sent Friday morning.
Eleftheriou’s advocacy has gotten the attention of other Mac developers who agree that the App Store has a problem with fake ratings.
“Since high App Store ratings can entice people into downloading a scam app, it’s no surprise that there are services that provide high ratings” emailed Brent Simmons, a longtime developer of such apps as the RSS reader NetNewsWire. “You can buy Twitter followers, too.”
The option of a weekly subscription, not the more familiar monthly billing, may also invite abuse.
“Apple could prevent SO MANY App Store misleading-subscription scams if they eliminated weekly billing as an option,” tweeted Marco Arment, developer of the podcasting client Overcast and other Mac and iOS apps.
In an essay at 9to5Mac suggesting improvements to the iPhone experience, contributing writer Parker Ortolani urged Apple to mandate a standard interface for cancelling an app subscription.
Eleftheriou, however, wants Apple to fix its reviews first. It’s not the only company with a fake-reviews problem—they’ve overrun Amazon for years, while Google’s Play Store has its own sordid history—but Apple’s site makes a point of setting the App Store above competing marketplaces as “a safe and trusted place to discover and download apps.”
Eleftheriou advised ignoring App Store reviews and ratings altogether, saying, “only get apps that you already know, or have been recommended by friends or other recommendations that can be or have been verified outside of the App Store.”