“My phone’s been hacked!” Words you probably don’t want to hear or say. Ever.
Yes, a smartphone can get hacked just like any other device. And they make prize targets as well. Loaded as they are with personal and financial information, access to payment apps, files, photos, and contacts, bad actors have plenty to gain by tapping into your smartphone.
How do bad actors pull it off? They have several attack vectors they can choose from.
They can hide malware in bogus apps that they post as free downloads in app stores. Spyware, ransomware, and adware are typical types of malware that get distributed this way.
They can also install it themselves by getting physical access to your phone.
Sometimes, bad actors along the smartphone supply chain have loaded malware onto entirely new smartphones so that they come with malware preinstalled, right out of the box.
And as always, phishing attacks by email, text, and other messaging apps remain popular as well.
Today’s attackers have gotten cagier as well. It used to be that a hacked phone would run sluggishly or hot after it got infected by malware. The battery might have drained quickly as well. That was because the malware ate up system resources, created conflicts with other apps, and used your data or internet connection to pass along your personal information—all of which could make your smartphone feel a little off. That still might be the case with some mobile malware today, yet much of it works far more efficiently. The old telltale physical signs of a hacked phone might not present themselves at all.
However, you can spot several indications that might indicate your phone has been hacked.
How do I know if my phone has been hacked?
A few examples follow. Note that these might be signs of a hacked phone, yet not always.
Popups suddenly appear on your phone: If you’re seeing more popup ads than usual or seeing them for the first time, it might be a sign that your phone has been hit with adware—a type of malicious app that hackers use to generate revenue by distributing ads without the consent of the user. Furthermore, those ads might be malicious in nature as well. They might take you to pages designed to steal personal information (which is a good reminder to never tap or click on them).
Mysterious apps, calls, or texts appear: A potential telltale sign that your phone has been hacked is the appearance of new apps that you didn’t download, along with spikes in data usage that you can’t account for. Likewise, if you see calls in your phone’s call log that you didn’t make, that’s a warning as well.
You run out of data or see unknown charges pop up: Big red flag here. This is a possible sign that a hacker has hijacked your phone and is using it to transfer data, make purchases, send messages, or make calls via your phone.
You have issues with your online accounts: Phones infected with spyware can skim account credentials and then transmit them to the hacker behind the attack. This could lead to credit and debit fraud. In some cases, hackers will hijack an account altogether by changing the password and locking out the original owner. If you spot unusual charges or can no longer log into your accounts with your password, a hacked phone might be the cause—among others.
What do I do if my phone is hacked?
Install and run online protection software on your smartphone if you haven’t already. From there, delete any apps you didn’t download, delete risky texts, and then run your mobile security software again.
If you still have issues, wiping and restoring your phone is an option. Provided you have your photos, contacts, and other vital info backed up in the cloud, it’s a relatively straightforward process. A quick search online can show how to wipe and restore your model of phone.
Lastly, check your accounts and your credit card statements to see if any unauthorized purchases have been made. If so, you can go through the process of freezing those accounts and getting new cards and credentials issued. Further, update your passwords for your accounts with a password that is strong and unique to prevent further theft.
Tips to keep your phone from getting hacked
To help keep your phone from getting hacked in the first place, there are a few relatively easy steps you can take. Inside of a few minutes, you can find yourself much safer than you were before.
Use comprehensive security software on your phone. Over the years, we’ve gotten into the good habit of using this on our computers and laptops. Our phones? Not so much. Installing online protection software gives you the first line of defense against attacks, plus several of the additional security features mentioned below.
Stay safer on the go with a VPN. One way that crooks can hack their way into your phone is via public Wi-Fi, such as at airports, hotels, and even libraries. These networks are public, meaning that your activities are exposed to others on the network—your banking, your password usage, all of it. One way to make a public network private is with a VPN, which can keep you and all you do protected from others on that Wi-Fi hotspot.
Use a password manager. Strong, unique passwords offer another primary line of defense. Yet with all the accounts we have floating around, juggling dozens of strong and unique passwords can feel like a task—thus the temptation to use (and re-use) simpler passwords. Hackers love this because one password can be the key to several accounts. Instead, try a password manager that can create those passwords for you and safely store them as well. Comprehensive online protection software like ours will include one.
Avoid public charging stations. Charging up at a public station seems so simple and safe. However, some hackers have been known to “juice jack” by installing malware into the charging station. While you “juice up,” they “jack” your passwords and personal info. So what to do about power on the road? You can look into a portable power pack that you can charge up ahead of time or run on AA batteries. They’re pretty inexpensive and can prevent malware from a public charging station.
Keep your eyes on your phone. Preventing the actual theft of your phone is important too, as some hacks happen because a phone falls into the wrong hands. This is a good case for password or PIN protecting your phone, as well as turning on device tracking so that you can locate your phone or wipe it remotely if you need to. Apple provides iOS users with a step-by-step guide for remotely wiping devices, and Google offers up a guide for Android users as well.
Stick with trusted app stores. Stick with legitimate apps stores like 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. And for the malicious apps that sneak past these processes, Google and Apple are quick to remove malicious apps when discovered, making their stores that much safer.
Keep an eye on app permissions. Another way hackers 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. So check and see what permissions the app is asking for. If it’s asking for way more than you bargained for, like a simple game wanting access to your camera or microphone, it might be a scam. Delete the app and find a legitimate one that doesn’t ask for invasive permissions like that. If you’re curious about permissions for apps that are already on your phone, iPhone users can learn how to allow or revoke app permission here, and Android can do the same here.
Update your phone’s operating system. Together with installing security software is keeping your phone’s operating system up to date. Updates can fix vulnerabilities that hackers rely on to pull off their malware-based attacks—it’s another tried and true method of keeping yourself safe and your phone running great too.
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