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Fleeceware Subscription Scams Can Cost You a Bundle

by Elizabeth Harper on April 10, 2020

Downloading the wrong mobile apps can really cost you. "Fleeceware" — smartphone apps that trick you into signing up for pricey subscriptions — can cost unwary downloaders hundreds of dollars a year. The worst part is that most of these apps look completely legitimate, which can make fleeceware scams hard to avoid. That’s why so many of us fall victim, putting some of these apps near the top of the App Store download charts.

These sneaky apps are free to download, but users quickly find that they require an overpriced subscription to unlock most of their features. The app makers offer a "free trial" to activate the features, and then count on you forgetting to unsubscribe before being billed. As it turns out those features usually aren’t very exciting, and may not even work properly — but once you’ve clicked subscribe, the fleeceware has done its job to trap you into a subscription plan.

Many of these fleeceware apps bill from $3 to $10 per week, and because these subscriptions auto-renew until canceled, costs add up quickly. If you don’t keep a sharp eye on your credit card, that could mean getting billed for months before you realize the app has scammed you. And because it can be difficult to get a subscription refund from the Apple App Store or Google Play, there’s a good chance your money is gone for good.

If you’re careful, you can avoid fleeceware by paying extra attention before you download (or subscribe to) any apps. Fleeceware scammers tend to focus on fun (and sometimes a little silly) lifestyle apps, like photo editing apps (particularly with trendy filters) and astrology apps. Sophos, an internet security company, recently reported the following iPhone apps to be fleeceware and shared a similar list of Android fleeceware apps earlier this year:

Seer App: Face, Horoscope, Palm ($7.99 weekly, $29.99 monthly)
Palmistry Decoder ($8.99)
Lucky Life -- Future Seer ($8.99 weekly, $24.99 monthly)
Life Palmistry – AI Palm & Tag ($7.99 weekly, $24.99 monthly)
Picsjoy-Cartoon Effect Editor ($7.99 weekly)
Aging seer – Faceapp,Horoscope ($7.99 weekly, $8.99 monthly)
Face Aging Scan-AI Age Camera ($8.99 weekly)
Face Reader – Horoscope Secret ($2.99 weekly, $9.99 monthly)
Horoscope Secret ($9.99 weekly, $29.99 monthly)
CIAO – Live Video Chat ($19.99 monthly)
Astro Time & Daily Horoscope ($7.99 weekly, $19.99 monthly)
Video Recorder / Reaction ($2.99 weekly, $9.99 monthly)
Crazy Helium Funny Face Editor ($4.99 weekly, $9.99 monthly)
Banuba: Face Filters & Effects ($7.99 weekly, $24.99 monthly)
QR Code Reader & Barcode PRO ($9.49 monthly)
Face Reading – Horoscope 2020 ($4.99 weekly, $15.99 monthly)
mSpy Lite Phone Family Tracker ($49.99/quarter)
Fortunescope: Palm Reader 2019 ($9.99 weekly)
Zodiac Master Plus – Palm Scan ($8.99 weekly, $22.99 monthly)
WonderKey-Cartoon Avatar Maker ($7.99 weekly, $18.99 monthly)
Avatar Creator – Cartoon Emoji ($8.99 weekly)
Life Insight-Palm & Animal Face ($8.99 weekly, $22.99 monthly)
Astroline astrology, horoscope ($8.99 weekly, $19.99 monthly)
Celeb Twin – Who you look like ($5.99 weekly, $19.99 monthly) 

Warning signs that an app is fleeceware

Many of these apps are tempting precisely because they’re fun, but you need to do some investigative work before you click download. 

  • Beware apps with bad reviews. Not all bad reviews indicate fleeceware, but app reviews will often clue you in to the type of app you're about to download. Fleeceware reviews will usually be filled with complaints about expensive and hard-to-escape subscriptions.
  • Pay attention to free trial details. Most apps that offer subscriptions have a free trial, but fleeceware apps tend to have very short free trials (sometimes as little as three days), which gives you very little time to change your mind. Pay close attention to the trial length and the weekly, monthly or yearly cost of the subscription. 
  • Apps you’ve found through advertisements. Many fleeceware apps grab users by advertising on YouTube or social media. When you click on an advertisement that leads you to an app, be extra careful to review the app details before you download. And always subscribe through the App Store or Google Play, not the app's website.

How to cancel an app subscription

Fortunately, if you’ve been caught by fleeceware, you can unsubscribe before the costs start adding up. However, you usually have to cancel 24 hours before the end of your trial to avoid being billed, which means you have to act fast, as some only offer a short 3-day trial.

Whenever you download an app that comes with a subscription fee, make sure you set a reminder or create a calendar entry to unsubscribe more than 24 hours before the free trial ends. And, check to see that the subscription shows up in your subscriptions list. You'll want to make sure right away that you won't have trouble canceling later.

Unsubscribe on the Apple App Store

  • Open Settings on your iPhone or iPad
  • Tap your name at the top of the screen
  • Tap Subscriptions
  • Tap the subscription you want to cancel
  • Click Cancel Subscription

Unsubscribe on the Google Play Store

  • Open the Google Play Store on your Android device
  • Tap the menu icon, then Subscriptions
  • Tap the subscription you want to cancel
  • Tap Cancel Subscription

As long as you’re careful what you download — and make a habit of checking your app subscriptions — you can avoid being fleeced and save yourself a lot of cash. 

[Image credit: woman using iPhone 11 via BigStockPhoto]


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