Adware-Packed Fake Apps Still Making Their Way to Google Play

Adware is nothing
new, nor will it go away any time soon, especially since it’s a legitimate
means for app developers to generate revenue. When it comes to Android,
“borderline legitimate” is the tagline that developers commonly abuse to
smuggle seemingly legitimate applications into official marketplaces, such as
Google Play.

While displaying
ads is not considered malicious per se, when the app goes out of its way to
hide its presence on the device, then push full-screen ads on your device even
when you’re not in the app, they become less of a nuisance that you can quickly
uninstall, and more of a pain that makes it difficult to have a decent user
experience with your Android device.

Bitdefender
researchers recently uncovered three new apps in Google Play that seem to
behave a lot like Trojans or Spyware in the way they hide on devices, but
restrain themselves to displaying full-screen adds every 15 minutes.

Key Findings:

  • More than 10,000+ downloads each, during at least 3 months of activity
  • They change their name and launcher icons in the Apps menu to impede
    uninstallation
  • All 3 fake apps hide their presence if the device has an internet
    connection.
  • They display full-screen ads every 15 minutes, but only starting 24
    hours after installation
  • If no internet connection is present after install, the apps actually
    perform as advertised
  • Potentially the same developer behind all three

This little … app
went to market

The three Android
apps (com.colors.drawing.coloring, hd4k.wallpapers.backgrounds, and launcher.call.recorder) seem to have been flagged as malicious starting early
May 2019, although they were present in Google Play for at least three months
prior to that. Each one seems to have amassed more than 10,000 downloads,
according to stats posted on their official pages (now taken offline).

While these stats don’t necessarily mean that the apps
behaved illicitly from the moment they reached the official marketplace, it
does suggest that, somewhere along the way, they were updated with borderline
legitimate functionalities that made it past Google’s app vetting system.

Unlike other apps that display aggressive adware, these
three actually have full-fledged functionality embedded – potentially signaling
that they were completely legitimate when they were submitted for vetting –
provided that when you first launch the app they don’t detect an active
internet connection.

When the apps are first installed, they set their
settings icon to the Google Play logo, while also changing their settings name
to Google Play Store, potentially making it difficult for the untrained and
not-so-tech-savvy user to spot the apps and uninstall them. This is a common
practice for borderline legitimate apps seeking to ensure their persistence on
the device, using names and icons usually associated with legitimate processes
and applications to discourage uses to remove them.

While strange behavior for a Google Play application, the
fact that it will run normally if it has no internet connection when first
executed may signal that the developer intended for non-internet connected
users to at least use the apps’ functionality. A user with no internet
connection cannot be monetized through ads, so at least the victim might have
some peace of mind.

However, if the application connects to the internet, it
will hide its icon and close after 5 seconds, displaying an “Uninstall finished.”
or “This app is incompatible with your device!” message. At the same time, it
will open the Google Play store to an app already installed on the device, such
as Google Maps, in an attempt to confuse the victim.

The app will also set an alarm with a 24-hour delay. When
this alarm is triggered, a new class OneWork is executed. This class sets one alarm with a 15-minute
delay and another with a 24-hour delay. The 15-minute alarm will start the
class AdWorker, which starts an overlay add. From this point on, it
will reschedule itself every 15 minutes, ensuring that the ads are constantly
displayed on the victim’s device. The 24-hour alarm will start the class GpWorker, which will
redo the referral part – possibly to make sure that referral code is not lost
or flushed – and it also reschedules itself once every 24 hours.

Most ads involve other applications and games that are
part of the referral service to which the developer is subscribed, enticing
users to install them.

While the three apps were published under different
developer names, it’s plausible they’re all the work of the same coder,
especially because they share striking similarities in the way they operate and
methods used to hide their presence on the device. While the three apps don’t
cross-promote each other in the ads displayed, creating multiple developer
accounts is not uncommon, especially when trying to push “borderline
legitimate” apps in the official Google Play marketplace.

It’s difficult to tell for sure when these apps made it
onto the official marketplace. We took a closer look at when the certificates
for each application were generated and it’s safe to estimate that, it couldn’t
have been more than a couple of months from the moment the certificate was
generated until the app was posted online. In that respect, the oldest
certificate for the analyzed apps seems to have been generated on April 21st
2019. While the apps have since been taken offline and the developer/developers
don’t seem to have posted anything else yet, it’s likely that other similar
apps will eventually make their way into Google Play.

Stay Safe

Staying safe from apps, even shady ones downloaded from
official marketplaces, is a matter of installing a security mobile security
solution that can detect and block such apps from being installed on devices.
It’s also wise to read through commends to find out if some users have had
problems with the application. Also, reporting any apps that display suspicious
behavior could be considered best practice.

A full-fledged mobile security solution can also
accurately protecting you from malicious apps installed from third-party
marketplaces and from visiting phishing or fraudulent websites.

MD5 Package Name
f0b25652b03fbc319abc74eaeaabc330 launcher.call.recorder
0e1542aa9f6d00fd8e92d8b8154d7326 launcher.call.recorder
2b87892496de66cd6de63d8e69c370c8 com.colors.drawing.coloring
fb59d70e2afd02de713489a0a0df72ac launcher.call.recorder
0d3378057340f15ce18745c06ffb2f69 com.colors.drawing.coloring
19d56b41b84acc4bb63a57ea30881390 launcher.call.recorder
99a82f0e04597976b165b20cbac86261 hd4k.wallpapers.backgrounds

*** This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog from Bitdefender Labs authored by Liviu Arsene. Read the original post at: https://labs.bitdefender.com/2019/07/adware-packed-fake-apps-still-making-their-way-to-google-play/