Stop! Could That App Be Spying on Your Family?

shutterstock_246706546The latest headlines sound more like a Jason Bourne movie and less like something that could happen in suburbia. However, spyware is part of our new, uber-connected reality.

The latest report from CBS found cases of malicious spyware embedded in everyday apps such as a flashlight apps, an alarm clock apps, and gaming apps that allowed hackers to record conversations, steal identities, and empty bank accounts of unassuming users.

When an app collects your data in exchange for that free or low-cost download how can you be certain the developers are legit, their safeguards are tight, and that your entire phone (including your conversations, location, photos, data, contacts) won’t be exploited by a cyber criminal? The short answer is: you can’t. While security for the majority of apps is trustworthy, developers are not perfect nor are their apps. And, if it’s happening to adults, you can bet hackers are going to prey on the impulsive teens who want that cool app and want it now. So how in the world can you safeguard your phone against malicious apps along with the other six phones and several computers in your household?

Here are a few app safety tips:

  1. Change your thinking. View your smartphone as a powerful piece of technology, not as a convenient, fun little gadget. View your phone as a bank counter, a confessional, and a private safe. Don’t carry any information on your phone you would not want the world to see. Teach your kids to do the same.
  2. shutterstock_229183180Consider the exchange. Nothing is free. Many apps ask for access to your contacts, your phone number, calendar, or location. Be sure to talk to your kids about slowing down to consider every question being asked—no matter how excited they are about the app. Does the app explain what I’m permitting? Reading the permissions section of an app isn’t the first thing on the fun list, but you may be glad you did. Often we are giving an app some pretty strange things, so you have to weigh the exchange.
  3. Check out the app developer. Your app store may include information about the company that developed an app in its description. However, if the app is missing a contact name, website or email, it may not be a trustworthy app.
  4. Look at app reviews. Check out the customer reviews in the App Store and Google reviews to see if there have been any complaints. Be sure the reviews are legitimate. Look for typos or poor grammar, which could be a sign of a fake review. No reviews at all? Also not a good sign.
  5. Clean your digital house. If you suspect malware, go through your apps and uninstall just about every app, you may even have to restore your phone settings entirely.
  6. Go with your gut. Does something feel fishy about this app? It’s website? It’s interface or graphics? Does it feel like a vacant lot (no reviews)? Google the app real quick and see if anyone has complained about it. Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 7.14.14 PM
  7. Verify, verify, verify. If entering in your credit card information, look for logos that include BBB accreditation, VeriSign Secured or Norton Secured (see right).
  8. Don’t forget about wearables and webcams. While you are cleaning out your apps, don’t forget about some more subtle information stealers: webcams and wearables. If you’ve customized any of your household gadgets (this means your fitness gadgets, webcams, kids toys, mobile speakers, and games) make sure they are secured and locked down with passwords. If you have webcams, cover them up with a Post-It. Hackers can turn on cameras without your assistance.

With technology comes ease, efficiency, and entertainment but also the responsibility to safeguard these powerful tools. Take nothing for granted, especially your family’s privacy. We live in a time when there’s a quiet exchange going on for staying connected 24/7. With that exchange, our privacy and even safety are compromised more than we care to admit. Yes, thinking about the “what ifs” can be overwhelming but just doing a little each day to lock down your digital life will build up your family’s digital health. I will admit, in writing this, I am way overdue for a digital checkup and app cleanout session!

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