Scams and viruses will target your smartphone next

  • Thu Jun 28th, 2012 9:16am

By Sven Mogelgaard Tech Talk

With more than 100 million smartphone users in America today, it should come as no surprise that the number of scams and viruses targeting these devices is growing every day. One report out of Japan cites an increase of more than 150 percent in attacks on the popular Android operating system, which powers more than half the smartphones in the U.S. While not as popular with hackers, Apple’s iPhone and the Windows smartphone are vulnerable as well.

The power of the smartphone is what makes it such a tempting target for hackers. The phone’s ability to run programs (apps) and the ease with which these apps can be written and distributed make them lucrative targets.

A typical scenario is for a hacker to create an app for a popular function such as a video player or photo editor. Embedded in this app is a snippet of code that takes control of a smartphone function such as texting. Once the app launches, it starts sending text messages to premium addresses (often set up by the creators of the virus). The phone can also be made to dial offshore pay-per-call numbers. The smartphone owner is often unaware his phone is infected until his bill arrives. Removing these charges can be very difficult.

Applications are getting closer scrutiny from distributors such as Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store (formerly the Google Market Place), so hackers are adapting by releasing a clean app, then sending the malware inside an update.

Smartphone hackers are also using the same tactics as their PC-hacking counterparts. Beware the unexpected email or text message. Especially if the message promises big rewards. This scam typically starts off with a message that tells you you’ve won a gift card. All you need to do is reply to claim your prize. This reply alone may be to a premium address and incur a charge. Or it may subscribe you to a monthly service (a practice called “cramming”). Mobile carriers are getting wise to this, and are more than willing to help you block these kinds of charges — for a monthly fee.

As I said, these gift card “opportunities” also pop up on home computers as well. One of the first things you’re required to do in order to claim your card is to provide a valid cellphone number. This requirement should raise an immediate red flag. After you’ve given up this information, you’re taken through a series of offers requiring you to provide personal information, subscribe to services and purchase products. Failure to do comply disqualifies you from receiving the gift card.

So how do you protect yourself and your phone from this new malware threat? Obviously, ignoring suspect messages is a great start, but the hackers are getting smarter. You should only download apps from your device’s approved store. While that’s not infallible, most approved apps are clean.

Thankfully, the good guys are staying a step ahead. Most popular PC anti-virus makers are now offering protection for mobile devices as well. These programs screen text messages and scan for potential viruses. Many offer additional features such as tracking a lost or stolen phone with GPS and the ability to erase your phone’s memory via the Internet.

Not all anti-virus providers protect all operating systems, but there is something out there for everyone. Prices range from free to $30 per year. Your best bet is to log in to your device’s app store and search for “anti-virus.” Downloading an app from anywhere other than your device’s approved website can leave you open to potential infection. In fact, in researching this article, all the reputable anti-virus vendors redirected me to the Google Play store on my Android device.

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