Securing Our Communities: Fleeceware Apps

Each week, the NTIC Cyber Center highlights a different social engineering scam impacting individuals and communities within the National Capital Region. We encourage everyone to share this information with friends, colleagues, and loved ones to help reduce their risk of becoming a victim of financial fraud and identity theft.

Fleeceware apps are mobile device applications that charge users high subscription fees after the app’s free trial period ends. Often advertised as utility or gaming apps such as QR code readers, calculators, fortune telling apps, instant messengers, screen recorders, and photo or video editors, fleeceware apps often appear to have high installation counts and countless positive reviews on app marketplaces. These inviting statistics, however, are usually falsified to boost the app’s rankings and convince users to download and install it. By contrast, most users’ experiences are anything but positive, as those who download fleeceware apps end up being victimized by the predatory agreements that bind them into paying high monthly or annual fees for functionality that is usually available for free or at a lower cost elsewhere.

When users download a fleeceware app for the first time, they are prompted to enter their payment information and sign up for a short trial period to use the app. After the trial period ends, those who have not expressly cancelled the trial in time are charged a subscription fee. These fees are almost always high, with some victims of fleeceware apps reporting charges in excess of hundreds of dollars. Unsubscribing from these apps can be difficult, and often requires users to contact the app’s publisher directly since simply uninstalling the app does not cancel the trial nor does it relieve the user of financial obligation. In the case of some fleeceware victims, however, even users who did follow an app’s unsubscribe procedures were billed for subscription charges. Because of the publisher’s cleverly worded user agreements, customers wishing to dispute these charges often have little recourse to obtain a refund and are frequently held liable for any and all charges associated with the installation and use of these apps.

The NTIC Cyber Center encourages mobile device users to take the following precautions to avoid falling victim to fleeceware apps:

  • Beware of mobile apps that require subscription payments after a free trial. If you do decide to download an app that offers a free trial, be sure to read the user agreement carefully before installation to avoid being charged excessive fees after the trial expires.

  • Only download apps from official app stores and read user reviews prior to installation to help determine if an app might be fleeceware. Remember, however, that an app’s installation statistics and user ratings may be misleading or artificially inflated.

  • When attempting to unsubscribe from a costly app, keep copies of all correspondence with the app’s publisher in the event of a dispute or you are subjected to further unwanted charges.

  • As with any online purchase, be sure to monitor your bank account statements regularly and immediately notify your financial institutions of any unauthorized or suspicious activity.

The NTIC is governed by a privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties protection policy to promote conduct that complies with applicable federal, state, and local laws. The NTIC does not seek or retain any information about individuals or organizations solely on the basis of their religious, political or social views or activities; their participation in a particular noncriminal organization or lawful event; or their race, ethnicities, citizenships, places of origin, ages, disabilities, genders, or sexual orientations. No information is gathered or collected by the NTIC in violation of federal or state laws or regulations.