Everyone knows not to click on unknown links within an email. But did you know that visiting a website on your smartphone or downloading an app could leave your beloved Droid or iPhone plagued by viruses?
It’s a problem more smartphone users are facing — and one that is opening up a whole new market for companies that develop smartphone security and safety apps.
While vigilance about where you’re surfing and what you’re downloading is perhaps the best way to avoid trouble, even the most careful users can find themselves affected by a virus that stops their smartphone cold — or potentially worse, steals their personal information.
WHEN VIRUSES ATTACK
Just as companies are working to create programs to prevent malware, determined hackers are creating their own programs meant to beat them.
In a recent Ai InSite story on mobile wallets, Matthew Ross, Web Design & Interactive Media instructor at The Art Institute of Charlotte, asserts that advances in mobile technology come with inherent risks, including the potential for hackers to gain access to all of the information contained within your smartphone.
“Imagine a hacker getting your entire address book when getting your account info also,” he adds.
It’s a scenario that’s all too familiar to Alicia diVittorio, communications director for Lookout Mobile Security, a “smartphone security company dedicated to making the mobile experience safe for everyone.”
“People are now using their mobile devices as miniature computers. We store, share, and send important information from our phones everyday,” she says.
And this escalating use means that smartphones are becoming attractive targets for attacks.
“In just the last six months alone, Lookout has found that threats are becoming increasingly prevalent; Android users are two and a half times as likely to encounter malware now compared to only six months ago. And as the number of attacks have grown — so has the level of sophistication,” she asserts.
HOW VIRUSES LOCATE THEIR PREY
Gaining access to your smartphone can happen in a number of ways. Malware writers may take a legitimate application and modify it to include malicious code, according to diVittorio. They then republish it to an app market or download site.
“This repackaging technique is highly effective because it is often difficult for users to tell the difference between a legitimate app and the malicious look-alike,” she states.
Another type of malware includes what diVittorio calls a "drive-by-download” where a user visits a web page that automatically downloads a malicious application.
She also cites “malvertising” or “malicious advertising” as a frequently used tactic to entice a user to unknowingly download a malware program.
“Because legitimate developers commonly use in-app advertisements to gain more users, people are used to downloading apps via advertisements,” she states.
The most egregious malvertising scenarios involve a malware writer buying mobile ads — that then direct a user to download malware on a fake site specifically designed to imitate the Android Market.
KEEPING VIRUSES AND MALWARE AT BAY
To protect your smartphone, diVittorio strongly recommends that users set a password — she calls this the first line of defense to protect the important data on your phone.
Next, she recommends that users download software updates for their smartphones.
“It is important to stay up to date with the software on your phone and apps because they can include patches to security flaws that can put your information at risk.”
Being cautious about what you download is also beneficial, especially with the boom in the number of apps available.
“Make sure to only download apps from sites you trust, check the app’s rating, and read the reviews to make sure the app is widely used and respected,” says diVittorio.
Finally, while free Wi-Fi can seem like an unexpected bonus, remember that if you’re on it, so are many others — and they may not be using it just to check their email.
“Public Wi-Fi networks are everywhere, but security for these networks is not. Be careful what you do on public Wi-Fi networks, and in particular use extra caution when shopping and mobile banking unless you’re confident you have a secure connection,” she states.
ADDING A LEVEL OF PROTECTION
Products such as Lookout work to keep your smartphone safe — in the same way Norton Antivirus keeps your laptop free of viruses. These products are available for download and protect phones and mobile devices from malware, spyware, and unsafe websites.
Just be sure that when you decide to download, you follow diVittorio’s advice and do your homework — only download from trusted sources and be certain to read reviews of the product you plan to install onto your smartphone.
“Lookout is the top-rated app by users and reviewers alike, with a 4.63 star review in the Android Market,” she adds.
Downloading mobile security software and taking steps to protect their mobile devices are the best defenses smartphone users have against the proliferation of malware.
“As mobile devices grow in popularity, so will the incentives for attackers. The number and level of sophistication of threats has grown — we anticipate this trend to continue as more and more people adopt mobile devices,” she concludes.
Written by freelance talent for Ai InSite