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Recently, authorities in the United States uncovered a scam in which criminals stole millions of dollars by making small charges to stolen credit cards. The average charge ranged from as little as 25 cents to no more than $9, which explains why 94% of the victims never noticed the charges.

If complaints that surfaced this past weekend are any indication, scammers with a similar model have set their sights on one of the world's most popular service for buying digital content: iTunes/the App Store.

As detailed by The Next Web, a flurry of reports from iTunes customers reveals that scammers have apparently been purchasing apps using compromised iTunes accounts. However, unlike the  thieves who used small charges to patiently amass a multi-million dollar haul, some of the iTunes victims are reporting charges of hundreds of dollars. All on apps that the victims never purchased.

Based on The Next Web's sleuthing, it appears that scammers may be setting up "farms" of apps that are designed to facilitate these fraudulent purchases. It's an ideal setup for scammers: create a farm of oftentimes worthless apps, use compromised iTunes accounts to purchase these apps, profit. Of course, the scammers' apparent lack of patience seems to have eliminated the possibility of success. The scammers will certainly not be receiving payments from Apple, although there is always the possibility that Apple has paid out for past fraudulent purchases that went unnoticed.

While some are downplaying the iTunes fraud, claiming the reports have been "greatly exaggerated," there does seem to be a major problem here. Even if the number of compromised accounts is "minuscule compared to the 100 million active iTunes accounts" and there have been similar reports in the past, the fact that more than one group now seems to be using iTunes as a conduit for credit card fraud may be another blow to Apple's nearly-impeccable brand.

After all, Apple's oft-criticized App Store approval process would seem to give the impression that the company is keeping a watchful eye on what content it's offering consumers for sale. But if scammers are successfully able to set up shop and make hundreds of dollars of fraudulent purchases on compromised iTunes accounts, it hints that Apple may not be as watchful as it would have us believe.

For its part, Apple hasn't explicitly confirmed that iTunes and the App Store were infiltrated by criminals, but it did tell Engadget:

The developer Thuat Nguyen and his apps were removed from the App Store for violating the developer Program License Agreement, including fraudulent purchase patterns.

Unfortunately for Apple, scammers are a lot like ants: where there's one, there's almost always more. If Apple hopes to contain them, it had better deal with this problem convincingly sooner than later.

Photo credit: CarbonNYC via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 7 July, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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