Mac App Store apps using in-app purchases to hide free apps that need subscriptions

Screen Shot 2022 04 13 At 13.03.
Screen Shot 2022 04 13 At 13.03. (Image credit: iMore)

Mac App Store

Mac App Store (Image credit: iMore)

What you need to know

  • Mac App Store developers are using bait-and-switch in-app purchases to scam users.
  • Some of the top-grossing apps are free to download, but don't work without paying money to the developer.
  • One developer says it shows Apple isn't protecting customers from scams.

This story has been updated to include comments from Fokusek Enterprise's CEO. The developer says it is going to add a free trial to all of its Mac apps.

A new thread of insight reveals how some developers on the Mac App Store are using 'bait-and-switch' in-app purchases to dupe users into downloading apps that require a fee to use even though they are listed as free apps.

As noted by Jeff Johnson, two apps from Fokusek Enterprise, Docs Pro for Google Drive and GCalendar for Google Calendar, are number 38 and 41 in the Mac App Store free charts respectively, but also sit 48 and 50 in the top-grossing Mac App Store apps. The reason, according to Johnson, is as follows:

This developer has 9 apps in the Mac App Store, all of which seem to have the same "business model": free to download, with In-App Purchase, but the first time you open the app, it demands an upfront one-time purchase, otherwise it doesn't work at all.No trial, no subscription.

Johnson notes that the apps are littered with terrible 1-star reviews and comments from users warning others not to download the apps. However, the developer's top three grossing apps on the App Store all have 4 out of 5 ratings, with Docs Pro for Google Drive having 1.4k ratings and a 4.6 out of 5 score.

In response to this report, Fokusek Enterprise's CEO contacted iMore with comment on the story. Tiberiu Prioteasa claims that the IAP monetization the developer uses "is used by most of the big companies such as NordVPN, Microsoft and many apps that provide Health, Lifestyle and Fitness apps from the Apple App Store," noting that Apple has approved the use of this monetization process everytime it has been submitted to Apple. However, while lots of companies offer in-app purchases on the Mac App Store, and use auto-renewal after a free trial, Fokusek's Docs Pro for Google Drive apps greets users with the following screen as soon as you open it:

Prioteasa notes that the app's description does indeed states "The Docs Pro for Google Drive application is not a free application. It is using the Apple IAP payment system. In order to use it you will have to purchase a license." In response to this report, the developer says that it is adding a free trial option to all of its apps, so that users will be able to try its applications before purchase. The above screenshot was taken prior to that update. With reference to Johnson's note about the suspicious nature of the app's ratings, Prioteasa fervently denied paying for reviews that might boost its ratings, stating they had reported other developers to Apple for doing exactly that. When asked why the app was listed for free on the Mac App Store despite the aforementioned warning it required a license, Prioteasa said "the monetization we used was copied from other applications like NordVPN or Microsoft where you download the application and to use it you need to purchase a license."

As noted, the app has been approved by Apple in its previous form without a free trial and has operated freely on Apple's Mac App store for several months.

Audio Editor

Johnson notes another app from a different developer called 'Audio Editor' that charges users $125 for a yearly subscription. It also has a 12-month subscription available for $25, it is unclear what the difference is. This app too is littered with 1-star reviews, revealing a business model even more sinister than the first:

Users say the app forces users to pay by locking a user's computer, with some unable to close ads or the program itself until they had paid for the service, almost akin to ransomware. The developer, Music Paradise LLC, has another developer account registered to the same Rusian address called 'Groove Vibes', the latter's app, My Metronome - Tempo Keeper, seems to be a similar ransomware scheme, one review notes:

This app is so fantastic that you won't want to even close the app without paying them money... oh wait, its actually the app that won't let you close it with out paying these con-artists first. The is a piece of crap scam.If you need to close the app, just go in and delete it and then you should be free from this garbage.

Another stated:

$20/month and you can't even close the app once it opens until you pay them. I had to force quit. When I pulled up activity monitor, this simple app was using 15% of my CPU. How is this still allowed on the app store??

The quality of Apple's App Store on both the Mac and its best iPhones remains a hot point of contention in the conversation around sideloading. Apple argues that its App Store business model, especially on iOS, is vital in order to protect users from bad actors, privacy concerns, and more, yet the company has come under increasing scrutiny because of apps on its marketplaces that persist despite clearly having been created for the sole purpose of scamming users.

CEO Tim Cook warned this week that sideloading on devices like the iPhone 13 would open up users to privacy concerns and said the company was "deeply concerned" about emerging antitrust legislation.

Stephen Warwick
News Editor

Stephen Warwick has written about Apple for five years at iMore and previously elsewhere. He covers all of iMore's latest breaking news regarding all of Apple's products and services, both hardware and software. Stephen has interviewed industry experts in a range of fields including finance, litigation, security, and more. He also specializes in curating and reviewing audio hardware and has experience beyond journalism in sound engineering, production, and design. Before becoming a writer Stephen studied Ancient History at University and also worked at Apple for more than two years. Stephen is also a host on the iMore show, a weekly podcast recorded live that discusses the latest in breaking Apple news, as well as featuring fun trivia about all things Apple. Follow him on Twitter @stephenwarwick9