Fake smartphone apps prompt concerns

  • Article by: STEVE ALEXANDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 8, 2013 - 10:53 PM

The unauthorized apps in the Apple and Google app stores were written by little-known software firms looking to make a buck.

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The Caribou Coffee on Grand Avenue in St. Paul.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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Just because you can download an app doesn’t mean it’s real.

Fake smartphone apps for ­Caribou Coffee of Brooklyn Center and hair salon operator Regis Corp. of Edina have appeared in the Apple and Google online app stores in the past week, setting off a flurry of legal activity as Twin Cities firms sought to prevent the misuse of their ­trademarks.

“Our initial reaction was to avoid brand damage and consumer confusion,” said Alfredo Martel, Caribou’s senior vice president of marketing and product management. “These apps were inappropriately using our trademarks.”

The fake Caribou apps were called Caribou and Caribou Coffee; the bogus Regis app was called Regis Salon. They were written by little-known software firms in Michigan and India that uploaded them to the Apple iTunes and Google Play app stores, apparently without anyone being the wiser.

Because Caribou Coffee does not have an officially sanctioned app, consumers should realize that any apps bearing the Caribou name are fake, the company said.

Regis Corp., which has a legitimate app called “Supercuts,” said the Regis Salon app appeared to be fake because it referred to a “barrista,” a name sometimes used to describe a coffeehouse employee who serves drinks. The company declined to ­discuss its legal strategy.

None of the Caribou apps are known to have caused any damage. Dan Lee, Caribou’s general counsel, said the company has demanded that Apple and Google remove the apps and warned the app writers never to do it again.

Some of the fake apps have already been removed from the Apple and Google online app stores, and the rest are expected to disappear in a few days. Apple and Google ­representatives could not be reached for comment.

In at least one case, the fake apps appear to have been written by young programmers who thought it was a way to sell their apps to Caribou, apparently not realizing they would incur the legal wrath of their ­potential customer.

“This is a way of advertising our apps,” said Angelo Binno, who runs the app firm Banimate in Farmington Hills, Mich., with his brother Andrew, who created two of the fake ­Caribou apps that are still offered through the Google Play website. “We’re not presenting ourselves as Caribou, but we would be willing to sell them an app.”

Asked if the fake apps infringed on Caribou’s trademarks, Angelo Binno said he was “not really sure.”

But Caribou’s Lee said the two brothers are on the wrong track if they expect to sell apps to corporations.

“I think these app writers are kids who are not thinking things through,” Lee said. “If the writers want to sell an app to somebody, this is not the way to treat them. We need to do a better job of educating people that they need to respect the intellectual property rights of others.”

The Regis and Caribou apps that have already been removed from the Apple and Google online stores were written by Techathalon Software Solutions of Mumbai, India, which did not respond to a reporter’s e-mail.

Lee first learned about the fake Caribou app from India when a store employee downloaded it, found out it didn’t work and asked the store manager what was wrong. The manager called corporate headquarters.

“It all happened in an hour,” Lee said. “We take these things pretty seriously.”

Terrence Handler, a computer consultant in Eagan who also notified Caribou, said the situation illustrates how easy it is to create a fake business app. “If this could happen to ­Caribou, it could happen to anybody.”

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