4 Mobile Malware Threats You Can’t Even See

By 2030, experts predict that there will be 5 billion devices connected to 5G.1 For the general population, this connectedness means better access to information, communication with far-flung loved ones, greater convenience in everyday tasks … and more hours devoted to everyone’s favorite pastime: scrolling through funny online videos. 

For cybercriminals, this vast mobile population fills their pool of targets with billions. And criminals are getting better at hiding their schemes, making threats to mobile devices seem nearly invisible. 

When undetected, cybercriminals can help themselves to your personal information or take over your expensive mobile device for their own gains. The best way to combat criminals and protect your mobile device is to know their tricks and adopt excellent online habits to foil their nefarious plots. 

Here are the tips you need to uncover these four hard-to-spot mobile threats. 

1. Spyware

What is it? 

Spyware’s main ability is right in the name: it spies on you. Spyware is a type of malware that lurks in the shadows of your trusted device, collecting information about your browsing habits, personally identifiable information (PII), and more. Some types, called key loggers, can keep track of what you type. The software then sends the details and movements it collects about you to the spying criminal. They can then use this information to steal your passwords and waltz into your online accounts or steal your identity. 

How do I know if my mobile device is affected? 

Malicious downloads are often the origin of spyware getting onto your mobile device. The spyware hides within “free” TV show, movie, or video game online downloads; however, instead of getting the latest episode you’ve been dying to watch, your device gets spyware instead. 

Have you visited risky sites recently? Is your device running slowly, overheating, or suddenly experiencing a shorter-than-usual battery life? One or all of these signs could indicate that your device is working overtime running the spyware and trying to keep up with your everyday use. 

How to avoid it 

Safe downloading habits will go a long way in protecting you from spyware. While streaming from free sites is less expensive than paying a monthly membership to a legitimate streaming service, you may have to pay more in the long run to reverse the damage caused by unknowingly downloading spyware. If you’re unsure if the sites you visit are safe, a safe browsing tool like McAfee WebAdvisor will alert you to untrustworthy sites. 

2. Malicious Apps

What are they? 

Malicious apps are applications that masquerade as legitimate mobile apps but are actually a vessel to download malware onto your mobile device. For example, when Squid Game was all the rage in 2021, 200 apps related to the show popped up on the Google Play store. One of these themed apps claiming to be a wallpaper contained malware.  

How do I know if my mobile device is affected? 

Similar to spyware, a device infected with malware will overheat, load pages slowly despite a solid Wi-Fi connection, and have a short battery life. Also, you may notice that texts are missing or that your contacts are receiving messages from you that you never sent. Finally, your online accounts may have suspicious activity, such as purchases or money transfers you didn’t authorize. 

How to avoid it 

Avoiding malicious apps requires that you do a bit of research before downloading. Even if you’re using an authorized app store, like Google Play or the Apple Store, apps with hidden malware can pass the vetting process. One way to determine if an app is risky is to look at the quality of its reviews and its number of star ratings. Approach an app with less than 100 ratings with caution. Also, read a few of the reviews. Are they vague? Are they written poorly? Cybercriminals may pad their apps with fake reviews, but they’re unlikely to spend too much time writing well-composed comments. Finally, do a background check on the app’s developer listed in the app description. If they have a criminal reputation, a quick search will likely alert you to it. 

Perusing the reviews isn’t a guaranteed way to sniff out a malicious app. In 2020, McAfee discovered that one bad app had more than 7,000 reviews. To help prevent malware from taking hold of your device, consider investing in antivirus software. Antivirus software isn’t just for your desktop. Mobile devices benefit from it, too! McAfee antivirus is compatible with any operating system and offers 24/7 real-time threat protection. 

3. Botnets

What are they? 

A botnet is a vast collection of malware-infected devices controlled by a cybercriminal. The criminal uses their network of bots to proliferate spam or crash servers.  

Malware is a broad term that encompasses dozens of specific strains of malicious software, several of which are capable of recruiting your mobile device to a cybercriminal’s army of bots. Without your knowledge, the criminal can force your phone to message your contact list or divert your device’s computing power to overload a server in a cyberattack.  

How do I know if my mobile device is affected? 

All the telltale signs of malware are applicable here if your phone is part of a botnet. A botnet commander grants themselves the highest admin access to any device they take over. That means you may also see new apps on your home screen that you never downloaded or messages sent by text, email, or social media direct message that you never wrote. 

How to avoid it 

Criminals recruiting devices to their botnet can embed the necessary malware anywhere malware typically lurks: in fake apps, dubious streaming and file-sharing sites, phishing emails, risky links, etc. The best way to avoid becoming a member of a botnet is to watch what you click on, stay away from risky sites, and treat any message from a stranger with suspicion. 

4. Fake Software Updates

What is it? 

Cybercriminals can conceal their malware within fake software updates that look official. Fake updates often pose as Microsoft updates because of the company’s huge user base. Java and Android operating system updates have also been impersonated in the past.  

How do I know if my mobile device is affected? 

The common signs of malware apply to fake software updates too. Also, if a fake update was widespread, you’ll likely receive an official correspondence from the software provider issuing a patch. 

How to avoid it 

The best way to avoid being tricked by a fake update is to enable automatic updates on all your devices. When your devices auto-update, you can ignore any pop-up, email, or text that urges you to click on a link to update. Auto-update is a good practice to adopt anyway, as it ensures that you have the latest software, which often means that it’s the most secure. 

Another excellent habit that’ll prevent you from compromising your device with a fake software update is to always preview where links will take you. You can do this by tapping and holding the link. Check the hyperlink for typos or for pages that direct away from the organization’s official website. 

Protect Your Mobile Device for Better Online Security, Privacy 

Cybercriminals are getting craftier by the day, employing new tools (like ChatGPT) and new strains to trick people and infect mobile devices for their own gains. To safeguard all your devices, consider investing in a solution that’ll protect you from every angle. McAfee+ Ultimate is the all-in-one device, privacy, and security service that helps you confidently live your best online life. The proactive monitoring features stop threats in their tracks, saving you a massive headache and guarding your finances and PII. If any online scheme does compromise your identity, the Family Plan offers up to $2 million in identity theft restoration. 

Mobile malware doesn’t always scream “suspicious!” As long as you arm yourself with the right tools, practice good habits, and keep your eyes peeled, you should be able to spot malicious software. 

1GSMA, “The Mobile Economy 

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