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Fake Apps on Rise: How to Protect Your Brand in the App Store

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As if the rise of fake news wasn't disturbing enough, the "fake trend" is now turning to a new target: brands.

Tiago Luchini
Tiago Luchini  Credit: Courtesy Tiago Luchini

While the National Retail Federation and others boasted about solid consumer spending during the holiday season, the Federal Trade Commission urged shoppers to be vigilant. The FTC just issued a warning to consumers to examine apps carefully before handing over personal information and making purchases, thanks to spike in imposter apps looking to install malware or steal financial data.

The notion of "fake apps" first emerged a couple years ago, when illegitimate antivirus apps successfully scammed users into spending a lot of money to, ironically, try and keep their computers safe. The issue is now cropping up again on a far larger scale. During the most recent holiday shopping season, dozens of brands were targeted, with fake apps appearing for brands ranging from the Dollar Store to Salvatore Ferragamo.

How did it happen? One possible cause is a change in how apps are now approved to be sold in the apps stores. Until recently, it was tedious and mostly manual, but app stores have recently endeavored to simplify the process to make release cycles faster and as bureaucracy-free as possible for developers. Unfortuntely, counterfeiters have found this streamlined process ideal for their own schemes.

As scary as it all sounds, the answer for brands isn't to simply forgo having an app. In an era in which mobile commerce is growing by leaps and bounds, having a sound app strategy is critical. Here's a step-by-step approach to prevent the havoc a fake app could wreak on your brand -- and on your consumers.

1. Stake your claim. In case you think that counterfeit apps are a good reason to forgoing having a mobile app, it's actually the opposite: while mobile apps aren't a necessity for every brand, consumers do look for their favorite brands in app stores. Therefore, it's never been a better time to stake your claim and make sure the official version is available. Otherwise, your customers may accidentally assume the fake one is yours. If you don't stake your territory, someone else will.

2. Check the app store frequently. When fake apps first started appearing, they were easier to detect. There were misspelled brand names and assets in the wrong fonts or colors. But app counterfeiting has become progressively more sophisticated. Your internal departments and outside agency partners should learn to detect any fake app.

3. Learn from them. Become a student of the fake apps that tried to mimic your brand. Know what they look like and what users are expecting to do with them. Ultimately, you want to learn how to identify the subtle differences between fake and real brand apps, while also grasping consumer motivation for the download. Also, analyze what made people think they should have an app from your brand in the first place. You may discover several dormant business possibilities.

4. Know your foe. What are counterfeiters trying to accomplish with your brand? Are they simply scheming to harm your brand's integrity, or, more likely, are they seeking a way to capture valuable user data? Counterfeiters use a systematic approach when creating fake apps. First, they decide which brands are most vulnerable to attack, then they download assets and recreate the color palette from online resources. When a credit card -- or any other sensitive information -- is captured somewhere in the app, counterfeiters can make illicit money out of your brand.

5. Create an app that delivers. This might sound simple, but if your app does not deliver what your customers are expecting, chances are that fake apps may take advantage of that oversight. Is your app dedicated to e-commerce? Is it all about the experience? Is it a content discovery channel? Does it tie back with some physical experience in your stores or other locations? Does it create a custom experience to you clients? In other words, it's imperative to firmly decide why your app exists. An app that delivers well in a space that is useful to your customers will have fewer gaps for counterfeiters to exploit.

6. Align your web and app presence. Think about whether your app and website are aligned and look equally as strong. Your position in both channels should be well-developed and deliver what your customers are expecting from your brand. Also make sure your website links back to your app, and vice-versa, in a seamless manner. Deep-linking functionality is broadly expected nowadays. Make sure these micro-experiences between site and app are fine-tuned and useful.

7. Promote your app's purpose. Be firm about the purpose of your app, and then use marketing and PR accordingly. Make sure your customers can find your app, and also understand why your app exists in the first place. Your website should promote your official app. If users access your site from their mobile phones, make sure to actively promote the installation of the app.

8. One is better than many. Have a consistent strategy on the channel -- don't have too many apps, either. If you are all over the place, you will confuse customers and open the space to counterfeiting. You likely don't have a need for multiple apps. But, if you do, you have to brand them very well on their own accord. A good example is Google, which has several apps (one for Google Gmail, one for Google Sheets, one for Google Maps, etc.). The apps' purposes, names and iconography all make the experience distinctively clear to users.

Now that we are well into 2017, all digital brand managers should be assessing the strength of their digital products to withstand potential attacks. Note that criminals who are mimicking brands are starting from scratch in the fake-app build process.

Today, three days is a reasonable estimate for how long it takes a developer with sinister motives to build a fake, branded mobile app. But in a few months, it may take as little as 24 hours, and the resulting app will look far more sophisticated than they do today -- and thus less obvious to consumers or to authorities.

The very best defense? Having a clear, consistent online and mobile presence. If companies work hard now to be more vigilant and take the necessary steps against the rise of fake branded apps, we can mitigate the issues they pose to businesses and consumers.

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