How To Not Get Scammed By Bogus Subscription Apps

Photo: William Hook, Unsplash

There's a special corner in Tech Hell reserved for app developers who try to sucker people into paying obscene amounts of money for an underwhelming product.

I'm not talking about the kinds of situations where you're pissed off because your favourite band's album just dropped off Spotify. Quit the service, if you must. No problem there. Instead, I'm referring to the ongoing problem of scammy or suspect apps offering subscriptions for common functionality.

Or, worse, app developers that offer a super-short "free trial" that automatically converts to a subscription, and you don't realise it until you get stuck with the bill (or bills).

While this issue is usually brought up in the context of Apple and the App Store, it's a platform-agnostic problem. It's just that Apple really makes it tricky for normal person to cancel an app subscription — burying the option under a number of different screens — whereas Google plants subscription management pretty front and centre on the Google Play Store.

Above all else, it's up to you to not get scammed; Apple and Google can help by pulling offending apps from their various app stores, but the onus is on you to understand what you're signing up for before you do it. Here are a few tricks you can use to not get suckered:

Check an app's reviews

Don't just look at an app's star rating, and don't just read a handful of reviews before you download something (or agree to sign up for an app's subscription). Go read the one-star reviews, which are usually pretty forthcoming if an app is trying to scam you or otherwise get you to pay for a subscription you don't need or want. Let those who came before you and were suckered into paying for a subscription lead the way.

Screenshot: David Murphy

Think, really think, about what an app is offering

What is a subscription? It's an agreement to pay a regular amount of money for access to a service or feature. Think about the kinds of things most people pay subscriptions for: magazines, Netflix, MMOs, et cetera. Ongoing, regularly updated content. While that's not to say that a service like LinkedIn isn't worthy of a subscription, an app that gives you access to a simple-sounding feature — like a flashlight, or a level, or even the ability to translate from one language to another — might be worth additional investigation.

In other words, it doesn't take very long to run a quick web search to see if there are other apps — free or paid — or even system apps, which come preinstalled on your device, that can do the exact same thing an app wants you to pay a regular fee to access. Don't pay to get regular weather updates. Don't pay to read QR codes. No, no, no.

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Actually read the fine print

Nobody reads the fine print, but you should. Before you tap on any buttons in an app, and especially if you accidentally pull up a payment screen, read closely and carefully so you can figure out what's about to happen. How long is an app's free trial? What will you be charged once that free trial ends? How often will you be charged this amount?

If I were a guessing person, I would say that most scammy apps are set up like this: You get a three-day free trial (or as short of one as Apple or Google will allow), and at the conclusion of that trial, you automatically roll into weekly payments of some unpleasant amount. Say, $10. And with 52 weeks in a year...

Wait a moment before you agree to anything

Scammy apps love to display pages that imply you have to sign up for a subscription in order to keep using the app's "functionality." Or, at minimum, they toss lots of "pay us" and "sign up" pages your way in an attempt to trick you through sheer persistence.

A lot of the time, it looks like the only way to keep using the app is to sign up for a subscription, but if you take a pause when you see these pages — assuming you really want to keep using the app, which you probably shouldn't — you'll likely see a little "x" appear somewhere that allows you to close the screen and continue whatever it was you were doing. It'll probably be tricky to notice and tap on, but it'll be there. Just pretend you're playing Where's Wally or something.

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Regularly check your subscriptions

It's an annoying process (on iOS, at least), but you should regularly look and see if you have any strange subscriptions eating up chunks of your savings. While you'll also likely notice this if you watch your credit card balances like a hawk, make it a point to give your "subscriptions" page on iOS or Android a glance once a month.

That way, even if you did sign up for something you didn't mean to, you won't get hit that hard. Perhaps you'll even be able to ask Apple or Google for a refund, if you're lucky.

Learn all the annoying developer tricks so you can avoid them

If you really want to get a leg up on sneaky subscription apps — and you should — then spend a few minutes watching this excellent tutorial from YouTuber "HolaWorld."

In it, the creator lays out a number of the different ways apps can trick you into signing up for something that you might not have intended to sign up for, based on how the apps display the subscription prompt (and how some people will tap on the wrong button to "close" it, which ends up signing them up for a subscription). Even though the video is geared for iOS users, it never hurts to be more well-informed, Android fans.


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