Before You Download: Steer Clear of Malicious Mobile Apps

Cybercriminals like to get in on a good thing. Case in point, mobile apps. We love using apps and they love making bogus ones—malicious apps designed to harm phones and possibly the person using them.  

It’s no wonder that they target smartphones. They’re loaded with personal info and photos, in addition to credentials for banking and payment apps, all of which are valuable to loot or hold for ransom. Add in other powerful smartphone features like cameras, microphones, and GPS, and a compromised phone may allow a hacker to: 

  • Snoop on your current location and everyday travels. 
  • Hijack your passwords to social media, shopping, and financial accounts.
  • Drain your wallet by racking up app store purchases or tapping into payment apps.
  • Read your text messages or steal your photos. 

All of that adds up to one thing—a great, big “no thanks!” 

So how do these malicious apps work? By posing as legitimate apps, they can end up on your phone and gain broad, powerful permissions to files, photos, and functionality—or sneak in code that allows cybercriminals to gather personal info. As a result, that can lead to all kinds of headaches, ranging from a plague of popup ads to costly identity theft. 

Here are a few recent examples of malicious apps in the news:  

  • Fake ad blocking programs that ironically serve up ads instead. 
  • Phony VPN apps that charge a subscription and offer no protection in return. 
  • Utility apps that hijack system privileges and permissions, which expose users to further attacks. 

Again, “no thanks!” So, let’s see about steering clear of malicious apps like these. 

Six steps to safer mobile app downloads 

The good news is that there are ways you can spot these imposters. Major app marketplaces like Google Play and Apple’s App Store do their part to keep their virtual shelves free of malware, as reported by Google and Apple themselves. Still, cybercriminals can find ways around these efforts. (That’s what they do, after all!) So, a little extra precaution on your part will help you stay safer. These six steps can help: 

1) Avoid third-party app stores

Unlike Google Play and Apple’s App Store, which have measures in place to review and vet apps to help ensure that they are safe and secure, third-party sites may not have that process in place. In fact, some third-party sites may intentionally host malicious apps as part of a broader scam. Granted, cybercriminals have found ways to work around Google and Apple’s review process, yet the chances of downloading a safe app from them are far greater than anywhere else. Furthermore, both Google and Apple are quick to remove malicious apps once discovered, making their stores that much safer. 

2) Review with a critical eye

As with so many attacks, cybercriminals rely on people clicking links or tapping “download” without a second thought. Before you download, take time to do some quick research, which may uncover a few signs that the app is malicious. Check out the developer—have they published several other apps with many downloads and good reviews? A legit app typically has quite a few reviews, whereas malicious apps may have only a handful of (phony) five-star reviews. Lastly, look for typos and poor grammar in both the app description and screenshots. They could be a sign that a hacker slapped the app together and quickly deployed it. 

Examples of Google Play and Apple App Store entries that list the name of the developer. 

3) Go with a strong recommendation 

Even better than combing through user reviews yourself is getting a recommendation from a trusted source, like a well-known publication or from app store editors. In this case, much of the vetting work has been done for you by an established reviewer. A quick online search like “best fitness apps” or “best apps for travelers” should turn up articles from legitimate sites that can suggest good options and describe them in detail before you download. 

4) Keep an eye on app permissions 

Another way cybercriminals weasel their way into your device is by getting permissions to access things like your location, contacts, and photos—and they’ll use sketchy apps to do it. (Consider the long-running free flashlight app scams mentioned above that requested up to more than 70 different permissions, such as the right to record audio, video, and access contacts.) So, pay close attention to what permissions the app is requesting when you’re installing it. If it’s asking for way more than you bargained for, like a simple game wanting access to your camera or microphone, it may be a scam. Delete the app and find a legitimate one that doesn’t ask for invasive permissions like that.  

Previewing app permissions in the App Store and Google Play. 

Additionally, you can check to see what permissions an app may request before downloading the app. In Google Play, scroll down the app listing and find “About this app.” From there, click “App permissions,” which will provide you with an informative list. In the iOS App Store, scroll down to “App Privacy” and tap “See Details” for a similar list. If you’re curious about permissions for apps that are already on your phone, iPhone users can learn how to allow or revoke app permissions here, and Android can do the same here. 

5) Protect your smartphone with security software 

With all that we do on our phones, it’s important to get security software installed on them, just like we do on our computers and laptops. Whether you go with comprehensive security software that protects all of your devices or pick up an app in Google Play or Apple’s iOS App Store, you’ll have malware, web, and device security that’ll help you stay safe on your phone.  

6) Update your phone’s operating system 

Hand-in-hand with installing security software is keeping your phone’s operating system up to date. Updates can fix vulnerabilities that cybercriminals rely on to pull off their malware-based attacks—it’s another tried and true method of keeping yourself safe and your phone running in tip-top shape. 

Stay on guard against mobile malware 

Here are a few more things you can do:  

  • Keep tabs on your accounts. With any kind of scam or identity theft, it’s likely going to leave a record in your statements or payment and banking apps. If you spot something fishy there, follow up and report it.  
  • Consider checking your credit report for signs of fraud as part of your overall security measures. It may uncover identity theft-related transactions that you were entirely unaware of, such as someone renting an apartment in your name. 

Lastly, you can always ask yourself, “Do I really need this app?” One way to avoid malicious mobile apps is to download fewer apps overall. If you’re unsure if that free game is on the up-and-up or if the offer for that productivity app sounds a little too good, skip it. Look for a better option or pass on the idea altogether. As said earlier, cybercriminals really rely on us clicking and downloading without thinking. Staying on guard against mobile malware will cost you a few moments of your time, which is minimal compared to the potential costs of a hacked phone. 

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