Fleecing and Fleeceware

Downloading applications to your computer or smartphone can be dangerous because it may expose you to fleecing scams known as fleeceware. 

Back in 2000 the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the New York State Attorney General filed suit against the owners and operators of the website of Playgirl magazine and 64 other online adult platforms accusing them of running fleecing scams. They charged thousands of consumers – including many who never even visited their sites – for what was advertised as ‘free’ access. How? The gimmick was that in order to gain free access prospective viewers had to provide their credit card numbers for purposes of ‘identification.’ It was the first high-profile case of online fleecing. 

Just over a year after the indictments the defendants agreed to a plea deal. They admitted that they fleeced their victims and paid $30 million to settle the charges lodged against them. In addition, each company agreed to post a bond of $2 million and each individual defendant a bond of $500,000 before resuming the marketing of online adult entertainment again. 

If you thought that was the end to online fleecing, however, you’re wrong. It was just the beginning.  

Introducing Fleeceware 

Online fleecing is now a widespread phenomenon.

One of the most notorious ways of falling victim is by downloading apps to your computer or smartphone. This happens so often today that it seems mundane. But it’s also potentially dangerous, so much so that this sub-category of fleecing scams now has its own name: fleeceware.

The primary reason why fleeceware has become so widespread and so pernicious is that there’s virtually no way to spot it, at least superficially. Even if you’re capable of digging deeper, you won’t find any malware, so it may still look innocent enough. And that’s by design. Peddlers of fleeceware don’t want to give you any reason to suspect anything. The fleecing takes effect only after you download. 

Here’s one example of how fleeceware works. You browse on Google Play or Apple’s App Store and see an attractive application that you wouldn’t mind trying out. All the reviews gave it five stars, so you don’t think twice, right? Well, you should. Peddlers of fleeceware can easily post a lot of fake positive reviews about their product themselves. If you really want to investigate a certain app then surf the web and see what people say. Don’t rely on the app download page or an advertisement. 

One widely publicised estimate from early 2020 is that more than 600 million Android users had downloaded fleeceware. No doubt the number is far higher today.

A different but still widely reported type of fleecing scam doesn’t involve a download at all. Scammers will call, email or advertise a free sample of something. This is the ‘free sample’ scam. Just fill out the form and your complimentary whatever it is will be on the way. Only one per person, however. So to make sure you’re not a hoarder you’ll have to supply a credit or debit card number. Don’t worry, you won’t be charged. It’s free. But when your monthly account statement arrives you’ll see that it wasn’t. 

How to Avoid Fleecing Scams and Fleeceware 

First off, read the fine print. That’s easier said than done, however. After all, the odds are that you never read the fine print and really don’t want to start. It’s tedious and boring. But even if you do read the fine print, the odds are that it is purposely hidden somewhere else on the website you have accessed. You may give up before finding it. But even if you do find it and read it, the fine print is probably composed so adroitly that you won’t even understand that it will require you to pay exorbitant fees or perform computerised acrobatics to cancel service and get your money back. 

Because fleeceware spreads with exceptional ease you should not rely on the popularity of a free download as proof that it’s safe. There is fleeceware out there that can boast over a million downloads. Nor is an app’s availability on Google Play an insurance policy either. One lab found 23 fleeceware apps on Google Play, and those 23 had been installed 600 million times! Look instead for user reviews on legitimate computer news and cybersecurity websites. 

Beware of apps that supposedly come with more than a two-day trial period. While any long grace period sounds enticing, it may also be the sign of a scam. In fact, if you wait more than two days before attempting to discontinue service you will likely be out of luck. Google Play only provides you two days to request a refund. Anything more than that is up to the merchant. And you can bet that there isn’t a single peddler of fleeceware who will give you more time than Google does.  

But It May Get Worse 

Many people assume that uninstalling an app will automatically cancel any and all future charges. But that’s not necessarily true, not even for legitimate apps. For example, dating sites will generally continue to renew your membership fees when they are due to expire unless you formally unsubscribe beforehand. It’s all in the fine print. So, if you ask them to refund you your money after you discover you continued to pay for their service, they won’t. Claiming you didn’t know won’t make any difference.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that fleeceware scammers will do the same even without any loophole. They’re merely following the example set by the operators of those 65 adult websites a generation ago.

If you think you’ve been the victim of fleeceware or another type of fleecing scam, contact the fund recovery experts at MyChargeBack