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All it takes is one popular app to start a chain reaction. Case in point: Flappy Bird.
This app captivated the public, spawning countless articles, parodies, and videos. Despite having more than 50 million downloads, the developer abruptly took the game down from app stores, triggering an even bigger wave of interest and publicity. The takedown resulted in the emergence of similar apps in app stores and even auctions for devices with the app installed.
Unfortunately, its popularity also took a malicious turn, as we soon found fake versions of Flappy Bird circulate online. Most of these fake versions were premium service abusers, which sent messages to premium numbers, causing affected users to incur unwanted billing charges.
Trojanized or repackaged apps are popular means for cybercriminals to gain new victims. Bad guys take legitimate apps and add malicious code to them before distribution. Malicious code can lead to a range of behaviors, from simple premium service abuse to more complicated data theft or anti-malware deactivation. To users, repackaged apps may seem normal. The truth though is that they run malicious routines in the background.
In “Beyond Apps: 2013 Mobile Year-End Review,” we noted that some of the top malware were repackaged apps. The top 2 malware families of the year, FAKEINST and OPFAKE, were premium service abusers that came in the form of repackaged apps.
Figure 1: Top malware families of 2013
Repackaged apps hold a certain appeal for bad guys because they are sure to attract users (read: victims). By constantly monitoring mobile threats and trends, we have seen cybercriminals take advantage of the most popular apps. Examples include messaging apps like KakaoTalk and gaming apps like Plants vs. Zombies 2. Bad guys have also used repackaged apps to infect devices with malware that mine for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Dogecoin.
Cybercriminals take great pains to make sure their repackaged apps are downloaded and installed by users. These are almost always near-identical in appearance to legitimate versions. That’s one reason why so many people fall for them. Bad guys can mimic the icons of popular apps. Some even take it a step further by spoofing the legitimate developer’s name to add a sense of “legitimacy.” Back in 2011, we saw a rogue developer spoof Rovio Mobile Ltd., the Angry Birds developer. At first glance, the fake app’s developer’s name looked like “Rovio Mobile Ltd.” A closer look though revealed that the “L” in “Mobile” was actually an “I.” In lowercase, the developer’s name was actually “rovio mobiie ltd.”
Figure 2: Apps offered by the fake Rovio Mobile Ltd.
With all the techniques bad guys use, it can be all too easy to be misled by a repackaged app and install it without much thought or scrutiny.
Because of the security measures Google employs now, users are more likely to encounter repackaged apps in third-party app stores or random sites. Cybercriminals favor these types of sites because uploaded or hosted apps are rarely checked or scanned for malicious activity. As we noted in “Russian App Fraud: The Case Against App Searches,” cybercriminals will use different means—text messages or mobile ads—to lure users to these sites.
What do users see when they visit such a site? As research revealed, a whole lot of malware. One third-party app store, for instance, was home to more than 500 OPFAKE variants. These contained potentially malicious advertising code and were premium service abusers.
These sites also do a little “repackaging” to gain more visitors. We encountered one site that mimicked Google Play, perhaps in an attempt to appear more legitimate. The site hosted several repackaged apps, including—curiously enough—a fake version of the Google Play app that led back to it.
Repackaged apps rely on misplaced trust. Users trust that these are legitimate apps that will not harm their devices (and their data)—which are proven wrong in the end. Before downloading any app, follow these steps:
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