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Is your smartphone really safe from hackers? Here’s how to be sure

Young Business Woman Logging in Online Security System On Laptop With Mobile App On Smartphone

Your phone is much more vulnerable than you think (Picture: Getty Images)

Smartphones are the digital hubs for our daily lives, full of our personal data – and that’s manna from heaven for scammers.

Worse still, there’s been an acceleration in the volume of attacks being directed at our mobiles, as fraudsters exploit the unprecedented conditions of the pandemic.

With online shopping on a high following successive lockdowns and high-street closures, Which? found that three in five of us have received fake text messages from scammers purporting to be from courier companies warning of a missed delivery or unpaid postage.

And of the different channels by which messages can arrive on our devices, text messages are the most universal and create a sense of urgency that scammers seek to exploit.

Tap on a link in one of these messages and you will likely be taken to a copycat website that is almost indistinguishable from that of the legitimate courier company.

2E2DGMX Stafford, United Kingdom - January 13 2021: Scam coronavirus vaccine text message seen on the smartphone screen and blurred silhouette of finger point

Scammers are pretending to send legitimate messages to steal personal information (Picture: Alamy Stock Photo)

Any personal or financial information you type here, however, will almost certainly end up in the hands of identity fraudsters.

A similar text-message attack uses a fake SMS to dupe victims into downloading a bogus parcel-tracking app to their phones.

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre recently warned that the ‘FluBot’ malware promises to help rearrange delivery of a package to your address but instead stealthily delivers your passwords and personal information into a hacker’s hands.

Smell a RAT?

Another type of malware that can lurk behind the scenes is known as a remote access trojan, or RAT.

The apps give ne’er-do-wells access to your device and its data through a digital back door, enabling them to snoop around your files and messages, capture screen shots, turn on your camera and even listen in on conversations through
your microphone.

Frequently associated with cyber-stalking or targeted attacks on high-profile individuals, surveillance apps like these may be installed by somebody known to the owner with temporary access to the device, or by hackers exploiting a security vulnerability in smartphone software.

In 2019 a vulnerability in Facebook’s WhatsApp opened the door for malicious code to be installed on both iPhone and Android devices – all the hackers had to do to unpick the lock was to make a WhatsApp voice call to their victim.

Adware Beware

Not all malicious software is intent on stealing your personal information. Some hackers are happy to make money by hijacking your adverts instead.

While many apps and websites employ ads to support developers and publishers, malicious ‘adware’ can insert its own ads in place of legitimate ones, diverting all the revenue to line the wrong digital pockets.

A common threat on PCs and now an increasing problem for some mobile platforms, this adware can hide in plain sight in app stores, often masquerading as popular games, photo editors and – oh, the irony – even ad-blocking utilities.

Last year, Google removed hundreds of adware-laced apps from its official Google Play store, including apps featuring the ‘HiddenAds’ adware, which hides its home screen icon before tormenting users with endless ads.

It also ditched the ‘Terracotta’ network of ad-fraud apps, which install their own web browser and load countless ads in the background without the smartphone owner’s knowledge.

The takeaway advice is to stay vigilant when installing apps and following links. Always check app store reviews and question any requests to access sensitive information.

Why would a photo-editing app need access to your phone-call log, for example? For links, avoid bogus websites by ignoring the address in a message and instead visiting the website directly, using an address you trust.

Watch Out for Ransomware

Computer hacking bug 'Wannacry'

Ransomware like WannaCry hijacks computer systems and scrambles data

Ransomware, like the WannaCry outbreak of 2017 that hit the NHS hard, is one of the most dramatic types of malware, hijacking computer systems and scrambling their data.

Criminals demand a hefty payment, often in the form of difficult-to-trace Bitcoin, in return for the digital key that will unlock victims’ data.

The problem isn’t limited to PCs, however – smartphones can be susceptible to ransomware too. Microsoft recently identified sophisticated ransomware that targets Android owners.

‘MalLocker.B’ is another example of malware that hides inside apps that might look innocent, such as video players or cracked versions of games.

Once installed, however, the malicious app pastes a ransom note on the screen that remains on top of other windows and cannot be dismissed.

The advice is to install apps only from an official store such as Google Play.

‘Sideloading’ – directly installing an app on a device from a file, not from the relative safety of an app store – can be fraught with risk.

Zero Day

Security updates are an inconvenient but essential feature of our modern digital lives.

There’s rarely a good moment to pause while your device installs a bundle of patches but it’s wise not to put them off for long: these updates from app developers and smartphone manufacturers routinely feature code that defeats hackers’ newest attacks and are an essential part of keeping them secure.

Even with the newest smartphones running the most up-to-date software, however, there inevitably remain security vulnerabilities developers have yet to discover.

These digital chinks in the armour are known as ‘zero-day’ vulnerabilities and could enable a nefarious actor to install a malicious app on your phone.

Hackers are in a never-ending arms race to discover new vulnerabilities before smartphone software developers do.

Details of a previously undiscovered zero-day can sell for millions of pounds – with iPhone exploits at an even higher premium – to the highest bidder, whereupon they can be weaponised.

Many of us won’t be the high-profile activists, political dissidents or high-net-worth individuals that more often than not are the targets of these kind of attacks.

Yet it is still important to ensure we install smartphone operating system updates as soon as they become available to give ourselves the best chance of plugging any gaps in our devices’ digital defences.

Apps to protect your smartphone

Password manager

1Password is a good password manager

Unless you’re the type who can memorise Pi to 50 digits, remembering dozens of unique, difficult-to-guess logins is impossible.

Password manager apps like 1Password and LastPass do a great job of keeping your logins under digital lock and key until you need them.

Virtual Private Network

ExpressVPN is one of the best known VPN services

A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, keeps prying eyes away from your online activities by sending data through a secure, encrypted tunnel.

ExpressVPN and NordVPN are two respected services that people are using to increase security.

Private browsing

Firefox Focus is a privacy first browser

Firefox Focus from Mozilla is a privacy-first browser for Android and iPhone that stops services from tracking your activity across the web.

More comprehensive than private browsing or incognito modes, it makes deleting your history a cinch.

Mobile anti-virus

Norton Mobile Security will keep your mobile secure

If you keep your smartphone updated, then perhaps you don’t need additional security, but apps such as Bitdefender Mobile Security and Norton Mobile Security offer reassurance by bundling multiple services including VPNs and password managers into one convenient app.


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