Fleeceware drains money from account slowly over time - here’s how to spot it

Emma McGowan 22 Aug 2023

Fleeceware isn’t just a comfy outer-layer for autumn—it could be the reason your credit card debt is ticking up every month.

If you’re anything like me, every few days you look at your credit card or bank transactions on your mobile and scroll through just to see if anything unusual jumps out at you. And more often than not, there’s nothing unusual at all. 

There’s the bill for a purchase in the app store, the charge for something you needed from the big online retailer, a subscription fee for the news you read or the music service you use, a dry cleaning bill, and a host of other charges under $30 that you regularly see from month to month. 

Hidden somewhere among those charges could be an instance of fleeceware. And today we’re going to look at the financial damage that legitimate (though sometimes devious) and criminal efforts can cause when we’re not paying attention to small charges. 

Broadly, fleeceware works by quietly draining your account over time 

A few years ago, a criminal network stole a large number of credit card numbers and employed a different tactic from their usual scam. Instead of making a high-value one-time charge on a stolen account, they made smaller, monthly charges that blended in with the other fees that many of us have grown used to…and they did so over multiple accounts. 

The strategy worked. By dispersing the theft through small charges among many credit cards over time, not only did the scammers fly under the radar of the people they stole from, they also subverted the flags that banks and credit card companies raise for large purchases with unrecognized companies. 

Credit card companies adapted and learned to discover some of these kinds of fraud, but small unrecognized charges are something you should be watching for as you scroll through your accounts. That’s because quite a few criminals, or at least unscrupulous companies, found a way to employ this tactic in a way that’s technically legal. 

Most of today’s fleeceware comes straight from your smartphone’s app store 

Today’s fleeceware isn't like the typical malware or viruses we've grown accustomed to hearing about. These aren't programs that will corrupt your files or steal your passwords. Instead, fleeceware apps are, on the surface, legitimate. They frequently operate on a subscription model. They lure users with the promise of free trials but hide the catch within layers of terms and conditions: the exorbitant costs that kick in once the trial expires.  

What makes fleeceware particularly sneaky is that these charges can be so high for apps that don’t do much. For example, an early fleeceware app was a flashlight (a function most smartphones have by default). The app provided a free trial, but had a hidden subscription cost of $8 per month, charged to your app store spending account, that kicked in after the first week. 

Often, deleting the app doesn't stop the charges. The app continues to drain money from a user's account until the subscription, buried deep within settings, is manually terminated. 

There are a growing number of digital consumers being taken in by these deceitful apps. The narrative is almost always the same: download the app because of a captivating feature or promise, forget about the impending end of the trial, and then wake up to unexpected charges mixed in with our monthly app store bills. 

How to avoid and get rid of fleeceware 

 There is hope. Safeguarding oneself from fleeceware can be distilled into a conscious digital behavior pattern. It starts with a healthy dose of skepticism. When faced with an offer that seems too good to be true, it often is. Prioritize reading the terms of service and the privacy policy of applications, especially when they come with a free trial. These documents, although long and sometimes filled with jargon, hold the key details about how an app will impact you financially. 

Furthermore, the digital community is a powerful ally. Check the user reviews! They can offer insight into the experience of others. Although it's tempting to skip straight to downloading, spending a few minutes reading the reviews might reveal whether the app has a history of overcharging or other dubious practices. Equally, if an app promises something big, and there aren’t many reviews at all, it’s a good indicator that maybe you should stay clear. 

If you’ve deleted an app, but you’re still being charged for it, app stores for smart devices often have a management option that can let you delete a subscription at the service level. This can help you avoid having to re-install the app and dig into the terms. For Apple devices, you can find that in Settings > [Your Name] > Subscriptions. For Android, go to the Google Play Store > Menu > Subscriptions.  

Being proactive with your finances is also a significant step. Regularly looking into your app store subscriptions, bank charges, and credit card statements allows you to spot and dispute unexpected charges quickly. It's a habit that not only protects against fleeceware but also other forms of financial fraud. 

Lastly, consider the services of advanced antivirus and identity-theft prevention solutions. The digital landscape is continually evolving, and new threats emerge. Relying on professionals who are at the forefront of digital security can be the shield you need.  

Our lives are increasingly intertwined with the digital realm, challenges like fleeceware will persist. However, with awareness, caution, and the right tools at our disposal, we can navigate this landscape safely. Maria's story serves as a reminder to remain vigilant and to always prioritize our digital well-being. 

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