Four years after Cerberus made headlines when it invalidated free lifetime licenses, the device security app is back in the spotlight for the same questionable business practices. This time, it has begun to revoke paid lifetime licenses, partly without informing customers beforehand.

Back when the device recovery and locking app canceled the free lifetime subscriptions, it was quick to assure that "paid licenses are not affected," but it appears that this was just a temporary exemption. Over the last days, a few customers have taken to the Cerebus support forum to report that they've received emails telling them that their paid lifetime licenses were expiring soon. Others haven't even gotten those messages and only noticed that their access to the service suddenly had an expiration date in the Cerberus app settings. It's likely that many more people won't realize that their licenses are revoked until they need the service to find and lock their phones.

Cerberus settings: Main configuration: "Your license will expire in 4 days" Buy license.

A tipster looped us in on the situation and offered us a reply from Cerberus, which answered his inquiry on how his lifetime license purchased in August 2011 could expire with the following message:

Sorry, when you purchased your license the expiration date was set after 8 years. Quite frankly, we did not think Cerberus would last that long! Yet thanks to the support of our users we can now offer not only the most complete app to recover a lost or stolen Android device (Anti-theft), but also apps to keep you and your loved ones safe (Persona and Kids), and at a fraction of the price our competitors charge. We would really appreciate if you decide to keep supporting the development of our services by subscribing, otherwise we hope you enjoyed eight years of continued service for the price of a beer. Thank you.

Cerberus claims that "lifetime licenses" aren't actually lasting a lifetime and would expire after eight years. However, in the publicly visible terms and conditions from October 2011, active when our tipster purchased the service, the company didn't bring up an expiration date at all (it did state the license is "revocable," though). Even if a date had been mentioned, something that expires after a set amount of time shouldn't qualify as a "lifetime license," and hiding an expiration date in the ToS would be deceptive at best.

Looking at the Android Market app listing from November 2011, Cerberus even advertised the application as coming with "no monthly fees, just a one-time payment" (Swedish, translated by Google):

This is a free trial for one week, then you can buy a lifetime license for a low price (€ 2.99) inside the application: no monthly or annual fees, just a one-time payment. The license is linked to your Cerberus account, and if you have more devices you can link all (up to 5) to the same account.

Further, the company basically shames its customers into thinking they paid too little (even though they paid the price set by Cerberus!), and now it's their job to "keep supporting the development" of the service by subscribing again. Cerberus is deflecting its own bad business decisions to its license holders.

Coming hand-in-hand with the overall passive-aggressive tone of the email, there's also the bogus excuse of "we did not think Cerberus would last that long" — as though it was the customers' fault that the company miscalculated its own success. It implies that Cerberus didn't believe in its product and thought it wouldn't be able to provide the service for a lifetime in the first place, so it didn't even try charging a proper price.

Subject: Cerberus license activated. Body: Hi, The license for your Cerberus account (username: redacted) has been activated. Thank You. The Cerberus Team.

There is no mention of an expiration date in the lifetime license activation email.

The expiration issue only seems to affect the oldest accounts currently turning eight. When one of our team members checked for an expiration date on his license purchased in 2015, he couldn't find one — so far. This shows that Cerberus isn't transparent about this eight-year policy at all.

Sure, app development costs tons of money and lifetime subscriptions aren't helpful when your service involves servers and other running costs, but revoking paid licenses without notice and outright lying about a previously uncommunicated expiration date is not the way to go. That's still true even if eight years of service "for the price of a beer" is a pretty good deal.

If Cerberus wants to see positive examples on how to communicate with customers in cases like these, it should look no further than Enpass or 5217.

It turns out that back when Cerberus deactivated free lifetime licenses, it actually recommended those customers to switch to the paid lifetime subscription, saying, "We never made, and we will never make any retroactive changes to paid licenses, so if you buy the license now it will not expire." We know now that the company didn't keep that promise. Here's the full text:

You received a free license for Cerberus in our birthday promotion in April 2014. We deeply apologize, but it was not feasible to make it last for a lifetime, so your license will expire after 3 years of free service, on May 1st 2017. We are sending you this notice well in advance of the license expiration, because by then the app will be more expensive and subscription-based (with an annual or monthly fee). If you want to purchase a lifetime license with a one-time payment now, you can use this link: https://www.cerberusapp.com/buy.php?usernameREDACTED. All your Cerberus account settings will remain unchanged, including the number of devices that you can manage with the account. This option will be available until the end of October 2015. We never made, and we will never make any retroactive changes to paid licenses, so if you buy the license now it will not expire. Otherwise, you can enjoy Cerberus for free until the end of April 2017 and then decide if you want to keep using our service, with the licensing options that will be available at that time. Thank you, The Cerberus Team.

Thanks, Martino!

Another user (thanks, Matto Godoy!) received a similarly worded email when Cerberus announced its Persona service:

Relevant part: You were one of our early users and purchased a lifetime license for the Anti-theft app, we appreciate it and of course we will honor the terms of that license. On the other hand the Personal Safety app, and now services we are working on, will be reserved to customers with a subscription license.

Additionally, it looks like that eight-year expiration date is pretty arbitrary. Many affected people have reached out to us and told us that their licenses are already expiring despite being much younger. Some have purchased their lifetime subscriptions in 2012, 2013, or even 2016.

Cerberus deleting complaints from its support forum

It looks like Cerberus is trying hard to ignore its disgruntled customers by shutting down threads in its support forum that complain about the expiring lifetime licenses. Indeed, the thread we linked to in the original story is gone. Instead of owning up to its decision, the company tries its best to ignore the fallout.

  • Thanks:
  • Andre