UPDATE: Dec. 23 — Following the publication of this article, Apple removed the Lunar app from the App Store.
One of the top apps in the Apple App Store promises young women that it can check if they’re pregnant, predict when they’ll get their periods, test their blood pressure, blood sugar and ovulation levels — and even reveal the genetic makeup of their unborn babies — by simply scanning their fingertips or stomachs through their smartphone cameras.
Lunar, which debuted on the App Store just over three months ago, is ranked as the No. 2 “Health & Fitness” app on the entire site, beating out tens of thousands of other apps including Fitbit, Headspace, MyFitnessPal and other popular brands. It’s boosted by a rapidly rising count of five-star ratings — the vast majority of which are fake, according to experts who reviewed them at HuffPost’s request.
Lunar is owned by VitalTek Inc., a little-known company in San Jose, California. VitalTek also owns ScaNow, an app that instructs users to scan their palms and fingers through their phone cameras to receive insights about their “personality, health, and possible future.”
Several states have passed or are considering laws that ban private companies from obtaining biometric data without people’s consent due to identity fraud concerns.
With 17,000 almost exclusively positive reviews and counting, Lunar’s sudden success on the App Store despite its many red flags makes clear how easily scammers can game tech platforms’ algorithms to cheat their way ahead of competitors and lure in consumers.
And like the majority of its reviews, many of Lunar’s brazen health claims are false.
When HuffPost tested the free version of Lunar on a cisgender man by scanning his fingertip, the app claimed that he had a 77% “pregnancy rate.” Upon scanning an old banana, Lunar warned that the fruit had a normal heart rate but was at risk of high blood pressure. Women have complained online that Lunar told them they were pregnant when they weren’t and spooked them by reporting various health concerns that turned out to be baseless.
“It’s just ludicrous,” said Dr. R. Stan Williams, the chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Florida Health’s reproductive medicine department. “I don’t know of any medical literature stating that a cellphone can capture biometric information like that.”
Even so, Lunar has been propelled into prominence by powerful algorithms that are designed to blindly reward spikes in user activity (such as an influx of positive reviews) with increased promotion — regardless of whether the activity is from humans or bots.
Until recently, on the Google Play Store, Lunar boasted an average rating of 4.7 out of five stars and more than 100,000 downloads, although both metrics had likely been fraudulently inflated to a high degree through low-cost bot services and other tactics. (Google banned the app on Friday after being contacted by HuffPost.)
The market rate for 1,000 bot-generated reviews is around $1,000 to $1,500, which can yield a high return on investment for scammers. Lunar, which is free to install but earns revenue through ads and in-app purchases that cost up to $17.99, also entices real people to leave five-star reviews by offering them a chance to win a $25 Sephora gift card for doing so.
“My favorite part is the open bribes to get 5 star ratings on the app,” reads a recent review.
Still, the resulting traffic won Lunar a prime spot on the Google Play Store’s page for the top free “Health & Fitness” apps before the app was banned.
“App developers know that if they can get an initial surge of positive reviews, they’ll get up on the trending lists,” said Tommy Noonan, the founder of the product-review analysis site ReviewMeta. “Here you have a no-name app that’s trending out of nowhere.”
By triggering this kind of artificially induced algorithmic promotion, fake reviews and downloads can quickly draw in real, unwitting people.
Sarah Trotter, a 27-year-old woman from Ohio, downloaded Lunar in late October when she saw it featured on the Google Play Store. She has a heart condition and an irregular menstrual cycle, and was intrigued by the promise of a simple way to track both her cardiac health and her period on her phone.
Trotter deleted the app after the results from her fingertip scans made her suspicious, but she worries other women could still be using it as a stand-in for legitimate medical care.
“Someone might use [Lunar] as an excuse to stop going to a doctor,” she said.
VitalTek did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
The success of Lunar’s operation has relied almost entirely on the failure of tech platforms to take enforcement action against glaring violations of their own policies.
The app’s most alarming health claims — including its ability to test women’s pregnancy and blood pressure as well as their blood sugar and ovulation levels with 99% accuracy — have been disseminated through hundreds of ads on Facebook and Instagram.
Facebook, which owns Instagram, prohibits ads containing misinformation and misleading claims, but has been running Lunar’s ads for months.
After being contacted by HuffPost, Facebook said Friday that it would be revoking Lunar’s advertising abilities for breaking its policy against unacceptable business practices.
Lunar’s Facebook ads lead straight to the App Store and Google Play Store, where — prior to the app’s removal from Google Play — young women have been exposed to the deluge of glowing reviews and recommendations to download it.
Both digital marketplaces ban inauthentic feedback intended to boost ratings and have repeatedly committed to cracking down on fraudulent activity on their platforms. But extraordinary numbers of fake reviews continue to slip through the cracks at consumers’ expense in what expert product-review analyst Saoud Khalifah calls “an epidemic.”
“People are getting duped and in many cases, legitimate businesses can’t compete anymore because there are people leveraging nefarious tactics to get ahead,” said Khalifah, who founded the product-review analysis site Fakespot. “Platforms aren’t stopping them.”
Apple did not respond to a request for comment.
Google Play’s developer policies “do not allow apps that make misleading claims about health-related functionalities,” a Google spokesperson told HuffPost. “When violations are found, we take action.”
Lunar’s social media accounts are also riddled with bizarre health misinformation geared toward young women. In a Facebook post, it tells women to pee in a glass and then add salt to test their pregnancy, prompting one woman to upload a photo of her salted urine with a request for help analyzing her results. In an Instagram post, it suggests women can naturally augment their breasts by rubbing them “to flush out toxins and stimulate their growth.” In a tweet, it claims that experts say women shouldn’t shave their pubic hair. And in a blog post, it advises women to gain weight and go vegan to increase their chances of conceiving twins.
People are becoming increasingly skeptical of information they encounter on social media, but the average consumer is still far too trusting of online reviews, according to Khalifah.
“A lot of people need to be educated about this,” he said. “It’s a growing problem and it’s not going anywhere.”