iPhone Life magazine

Developer Beware - Scams Are Around Every Corner

scams How to do your own scamAs a developer and journalist, I get a ton of email. Every day people want me to review their app or gadget, or some app advertising firm wants me to use their services to "monetize" my apps. And of course I have to support my six million customers, at last count. Usually, I ignore the unsolicited spam, but a "personalized" email came across my computer the other day and I had to pursue it.

The subject was "I bet $1.00 I can beat you in WAR OF GEARS"

Wow, I was offered money, albeit a nominal amount, and the name of my app was in the subject; this had to be a personalized email, right? So I read further...

 

Hi No Tie, LLC Team,

____ is the leading cash tournament SDK for mobile games. We are having great success on Android and are now selecting partners for our pending iOS launch. I have been playing WAR OF GEARS and think cash tournaments would be a fun addition that improves the game’s retention and monetization. 

Notice the personalization including my full corporate name after "Hi" and my app's title embedded between "I have been playing" and "and think cash tournaments..."  It reminds me of the George Burns line, "The secret to success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made."

Now keep in mind that my WAR OF GEARS is a fun app but not my most impressive app. My apps have won awards from the AARP Silvers Summit, About.com, and BestAppEver.com, and have over six million downloads. But most of my apps are utilities, not games. WAR OF GEARS was a test case, as it was one of my first and few games, and a chance to experiment with Bluetooth multiplayer gameplay. It works like Rock, Paper, Scissors, but with Gears, Wrenches, and Screwdrivers. You launch those items at a competitor, using the camera view while they do the same to you, using Bluetooth to see who wins each match. It's fun but it's no Angry Birds, and the app sells about 60 copies a year. So it was a surprise that someone was playing it and wanted to highlight it.

I was born early in the morning, but not yesterday. So I did a Google search for the text in the email and found several developers received such solicitations. They even tweeted about it. This was a clever form letter that probably works with some recipients, and it's so cheap to setup. I can't say that I blame the advertising firm for trying. But I wanted to see if they truly vetted my app before sending the seemingly specific email.

First, I thought I should raise the price of the app to $999.99. I wanted to see if they would buy it just to prove they owned it. But if they did, I couldn't really prove anything, and some innocent user might buy it by mistake and that wouldn't be right.

So I simply removed the app from the app store, temporarily, by setting its availability date far into the future. It would not be available for new customers. Given the low sales, I didn't mind taking it offline; and I wanted to see if they really owned the app, or were lying, not just to me, but to gullible developers, on a grand scale.

I let some time go by and then replied, in faux naiveté with this message:

Sounds interesting.  

I'm glad you've been playing our WAR OF GEARS app and I accept your challenge.

Send me a screenshot of your high score.

-Todd

After all, the app shows their score at the top, so this would be a quick way to let them prove they have the app. And all of the screens on the various app review sites and iTunes would be easy to track via a reverse image search if they were bold enough to try that.

I didn't think I'd get a reply, but I did.

Hey Todd,

I have not played it in a long time and don’t seem to see it on the app store, did you take it down?

Gotcha.  Okay, I'll play along.

 It should be on your phone, or purchase history.  You can just send a screenshot.

Right?  If he's playing the game and thought highly enough of it to email me, it ought to be on his phone. If he bought it once, just show my a screenshot of the purchase history in iTunes.

I had it on my old __different_company__ device when I was running BD there.  It was a QA account, not a personal one.

"Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."  I decided to respond one more time, with the question I should have asked in the first place.

Why did you like my game? 

That's where the story ends. I don't expect to get a response. If I do, I'll update this article.

But maybe someone else will google the phrase in this firm's pitch and come across this article. Or maybe the sender will step back and actually send emails that don't start with a blatant lie. The shame is, they may have a good service and they may be a decent company. But the first impression is that their firm can't be trusted. And developers are preyed upon daily by firms selling the dream of app riches. The reality is, like any business, it takes hard work, both in programming and marketing, and success is not guaranteed. What I can guarantee is that there will be a slew of businesses trying to make money at your expense. And you can't believe everything they say!

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Todd Bernhard's picture

Todd Bernhard is founder of No Tie Software, an app developer specializing in Ringtones and Sound FX including AutoRingtone.

An iPhone is almost always attached to his hip, but over the years, Bernhard has owned an Apple Newton, a Motorola Marco, an HP 95LX, a Compaq iPaq, a Palm Treo, and a Nokia e62.

In addition to writing for iPhone Life, Mr. Bernhard has written for its sister publications, PocketPC Magazine and The HP Palmtop Paper.