Google's efforts to police the Android app store -- Google Play -- are far from perfect, with malicious apps routinely slipping through its review process. Such was the case for multiple phishing applications this year that posed as client apps for popular online payment services.
Researchers from security firm PhishLabs claim that they've found 11 such applications since the beginning of 2016 hosted on Google Play, most of them created by the same group of attackers.
The apps are simple, yet effective. They load Web pages containing log-in forms that look like the target companies' websites. These pages are loaded from domain names registered by the attackers, but because they are loaded inside the apps, users don't see their actual location.
In some cases attackers registered domain names that are similar to those of the impersonated online payment services, PhishLab Security Threat Analyst Joshua Shilko said in a blog post.
More recently, attackers used domain names similar to those of cryptocurrency companies, suggesting that the cryptocurrency industry is also targeted.
PhishLabs did not name the exact payment card companies and online payment services whose users were targeted by these fake apps. However, most of those companies provide links to their official mobile applications on their websites and users should always use those links instead of manually searching for them on the Play store.
"In one case, a targeted company explicitly states on their website that no mobile application exists for their company and that users should be wary of any mobile application using their brand," Shilko said.
The danger is that if phishers manage to routinely bypass Google's review process and upload such apps to the Google Play store, their attacks might extend to other industries in the future.
Another problem is that even when these apps are detected by third-parties and reported, it can take several days for Google to remove them from the app store, leaving a sufficiently large window of opportunity for attackers. It's not clear how attackers promote these fake apps or if they rely only on users finding them themselves, but in general phishing attacks are most effective during the first several hours after they're launched.