How my App became a Great Tool for Spammers 🚨

all started in the month of November, which is usually a festive month in India. I and my younger brother were sitting together in the living area of our home and were just discussing some random topics. Suddenly, he asked me something which lead to the creation of this thing.

Can’t we have an app through which we can send festive greetings to all our friends & relatives at once via WhatsApp ?

I did some Google search and came to know that there were no easy ways available at that time to make it happen. I was actually looking for an app with easy UI and should be as easy as Plug & Play. So finally my answer to him was “NO”. But somewhere in my mind, I started planning to make one myself. After two days of brainstorming, I started working on its design without even bothering that whether I will be able to even make it or not.

Once the design got completed, I started writing the code for the android app. Instead of focusing on the code that would actually be responsible for sending messages, I started working on its other parts (Different types of recipient selection lists like -contacts, call logs & custom lists). I had a very rough idea about how I am actually gonna make the app send messages without any human interaction (except initiating it). But after a whole month of continuous work, the app was ready to be used by anyone and I named it Sonic Sender (I randomly came across this name 😄). To make some revenues out of my work, I implemented a Premium Upgrade 🚀 option and put some limitations in the free version.

Sonic Sender app — Screenshot
Sonic Sender app — Screenshot
This is how the app looks. You can check some videos on YouTube to see how it works.

While making the app, I had no bad intentions with me. I just wanted to send messages to all my contacts at once. I was aware that someday WhatsApp might ask me to close this app or simply the app won’t get published on Google Play (None of these two ever happened). Something of which I wasn’t aware of till one month after publishing the app, that there is something known as WhatsApp Marketing and many are using different softwares to send promotional or spam messages to a huge number of people. Due to this, Sonic Sender also became a great tool for those people as well.

Finally, in the month of December, the app got published on Google Play. Initially, I asked my friends and relatives to download the app and rate it 😅. And just after 2–3 days of publishing, the app started gaining real downloads from different parts of the world without any advertisement (The majority of the downloads were from Asia). It also started generating revenues from the second day itself. Every month the revenues were increasing drastically way more than I can ever imagine 💸.

Soon after I started receiving hundreds of emails from users regarding feature requests, bugs, feedback etc. A few days later, some of those professional WhatsApp marketers starting mailing me. Most often their mails included things like buying the app, becoming a reseller, modifying it according to their special needs. Anyway, the reply was always “NO”.

Things were going really smoothly. I was pushing updates every 15–20 days, the number of downloads getting higher, the app’s ranking boosted up, lots of positive feedbacks and increasing revenues. Then in the month of February, I finally decided to take a step ahead and put my hands into the Facebook advertisement. So I started investing small amounts and just after 1–2 days, downloads went up drastically. It was really unbelievable for me at that moment.

Sonic Sender’s download statistics — Screenshot
Sonic Sender’s download statistics — Screenshot
Whooping downloads 🎉

On a side note, I would like to mention that it is not always so easy to pick up the right audience for advertisement in one shot. I somehow got very dramatic results in the first trial itself. But it’s always better that you make use of A/B testing.

I had preset the ad campaign to run till the end of February 2019 and had paused my involvement in this app till march. The reason behind doing this was my final Class 12th Exams.

Again in the last week of March (my exams got over a week before), I started working back on the app. I still remember that after so long break from coding, when I opened my own written Sonic Sender’s project files, it took me a whole day to get familiar with my code again (It could have taken longer if I didn’t write comments everywhere 😉). This new update was going to bring the most demanded features & fixing the very major bugs of Sonic Sender. Here is the update note that I published along with the app update -

  • Now you can store your messages in the form of templates
  • Group created in Sonic Sender is now editable
  • Introducing Timestamp & Middle Name smart tag
  • A lot of big bugs are fixed

With all the excitement I published the update on 31st March 2019. Everything seemed to went well until 4 hours passed. I was having my lunch and suddenly a Gmail notification arrived on my phone. I thought it must be an Update Published confirmation email from Google Play. When I opened the email, here is what I saw 👇

Sonic Sender’s suspension email from Google — Screenshot
Sonic Sender’s suspension email from Google — Screenshot

I still remember I had my next bite in my hand, and I almost felt like falling off the chair. It was really shocking for me. It wouldn’t have been so painful if Google had already rejected my app when I first uploaded the app. But after growing my app to a certain level from where no one would want to fall down to zero, it was terrible. Anyway, I controlled myself at that moment. It took me almost 4 days to realize that Sonic Sender is really suspended and has almost no chance of getting back to Google Play.

Still, I didn’t want to just sit back and feel bad about what had happened. I wrote back to Google to clarify my two questions :

  1. Why ?
  2. Why now ?

And here’s the reply I got back. It still didn’t clarify my second question.

Reply from Google Play team — Screenshot
Reply from Google Play team — Screenshot
Google’s Reply

After reading some online blogs, it got clear that this has happened to many and in almost every case, the app never came back as it is. By the way, I was never satisfied by Google’s main logic in this mail for suspending my app. Because in my app user itself has to type the message, select media to be sent, and the recipients are also selected manually. But I knew, my app is a violation of WhatsApp’s policy and the suspension has happened for the very same reason. Suddenly, I paid a little attention to the line which says, “Your app allows the user to repeatedly send spam text messages to a phone number”. This sounded like a logical reason and something which I can try to fix. Again I never knew whether it is going to be approved or not even after solving this.

So, I started work on the message sending process. I used Artificial Intelligence in the app to check whether the message being sent is a spam message or not. I trained my model with enough data so that it can catch all spam message before it gets passed to WhatsApp. The app was now working fine and was able to detect almost all types of spam messages in any language, and could block the user from sending any of the spam. As Google said, I will have to publish my new app as a separate one once the issue gets fixed. So, I changed the package name, and put a different title on Google Play and again published the app. And this time Google was damn fast. Within 5 minutes of publishing, I again received an email saying, “Your app has been Suspended”. Ah, this time I was ready for it 😐

Again, from the very next day, I started working on Sonic Sender’s own website and had decided to not use Google Play anymore and distribute the app myself. I removed Google’s payment interface from my app and was searching for some other payment providers which was necessary for the premium upgrade option. And guess what, I was rejected from all payment gateways for only one reason — “Sorry, you are under 18 ✋”. Still, I wasn’t defeated yet. I came up with a very simple solution using PayPal. In India, we call this kind of approach a Jugaad.

So, instead of processing the payment directly to my bank account and activating the user’s premium subscription immediately, I put an instruction screen where the user was asked to send the amount to my PayPal ID using the link given, and then upload the payment successful screenshot from the option given in the app itself. And then I used to verify all the premium purchases every single day at night. I know this is not the best approach, and I had to work on it every single day, but this was the only option at that time. This thing actually worked and users were able to buy the upgrade. But the purchase frequency and downloads went very down. And it was because both installing the app, and purchasing the premium upgrade had become difficult for the users.

This process was also going on a little fine until PayPal detected that someone who’s under 18 is trying to run a business without even registering for a business account. So, they simply froze my account and now, no one can send me any payment via PayPal. Or in simpler words, you can understand that my PayPal account also got SUSPENDED ! I think by this time I had got very comfortable being suspended again & again.

After this suspension from PayPal, I no longer had enough will to keep the app running. Also, I had noticed that WhatsApp is taking down all the websites and apps one by one, which are providing these kinds of software or services. I was also aware that people are running some small business as well over all this stuff, and they were doing well in this by promoting their products via fake profiles, spamming and accepting payments through Bitcoin. They have set up both small and large scale distributors and have teams to run all this stuff. But I treat it as a dark side of the internet, and would never want to mess my hands into it. So I let the app running as it is without any further modification, and on 1st June 2019, I shut it down completely ⚰️. I realized that violating someone else’s policy was never a great idea.

Sonic Sender was one of the best apps I have ever made. Along with helping spammers, it was also helping the people who were using it for good cause. I used to receive tons of emails describing how they are using my app, what features can benefit them more, and so on. If you read my emails received from the users, you will get shocked to see how creatively they are using the app without spamming anyone. Even some great organizations, NGOs, volunteers were using the app in many ways. But for whatever reason it was being used, it was always a violation.

UPDATE : I successfully sold Sonic Sender in January 2020 for USD X,XXX. So yeah, I no longer own it :)

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A developer, DIYer & adventurer 🚵