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Malicious apps infiltrate Google's Android Market

Bogus games purged after more than 10,000 downloads

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Google security crews have tossed at least a dozen smartphone games out of the Android Market after discovering they contained secret code that caused owners to accrue expensive charges for text messages sent to premium numbers.

The malicious apps, uploaded to the Google-hosted service by a developer named Logastrod, masqueraded as wildly popular games such as Angry Birds, Assassin's Creed Revelations, and NEED FOR SPEED. The developer allegedly cloned the titles, including the accompanying graphics and descriptions, and added malicious code that caused handsets to surreptitiously send and receive premium messages.

By the time Google removed the titles – more than 24 hours after they were first made available – more than 10,000 people had downloaded them, according to a blog post published on Monday by Sophos.

“We have already stated several times that the requirements for becoming an Android developer that can publish apps to the Android market are far too relaxed,” Sophos blogger Vanja Svajcer wrote. “The cost of becoming a developer and being banned by Google is much lower than the money that can be earned by publishing malicious apps. The attacks on the Android Market will continue as long as the developer requirements stay too relaxed.”

In all fairness to Google, users who installed the counterfeit games saw permission screens that warned the apps were able to “edit SMS or MMS, read SMS or MMS, receive SMS” messages. The apps also came with terms of service that disclosed users would be subscribed to premium services that cost as much as €4.50.

The revelation that Google hosted the malicious titles for more than a day and allowed them to be downloaded more than 10,000 times is ample evidence that these protections aren't enough to secure the Android Market. Google has steadfastly declined to scan apps available in its online store for malicious code that logs users' keystrokes or racks up expensive charges.

Google has long counseled users to carefully examine the permissions screen of each app before it's installed. And at least one of its employees has lashed out at companies providing antivirus products for Android handsets, calling them "charlatans" who play on users' fears.

With so many Android apps requiring access to geographic-location data, messaging functions, and other sensitive resources, Google has yet to educate users how to tell legitimate requests from illegitimate requests. What's more, Google's caveat emptor approach means it's up to users to make sure they don't get swindled while shopping in the company's official apps bazaar. ®

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