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4 signs that your Android phone has hidden malware and how to deal with it

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Malware on Android phones can make you miserable. How to prevent it or deal with a malicious app.

Omar Marques / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Android malware often tries to trick you. For example, a mobile app called Ads Blocker bills itself as a useful service to reduce annoying mobile ads, which sometimes pop up to cover your screen just when you need to access something important. But users quickly found that the app was nothing less than malicious software that only showed more ads, according to security researchers.

This is just one example of malicious software that can be frustrating Android phone users who harass them with ads that creators get paid to show, even when users are watching related apps. Malware often also harvests false clicks on the ads, which doubles the value for manufacturers.

“They make money,” said Nathan Collier, a researcher at Internet security firm Malwarebytes, which helped identify fake ad blockers in November, “and that’s the name of the game.”

Researchers say that adware like Ads Blocker is the most common type of malware on Android devices. However, other malicious apps can do worse things than make your phone so frustrating to use that you want to Hulk out and smash it – like stealing personal information from your phone.

Malware can be disorienting, get in the way of how you normally use your phone and make you feel uncomfortable even if you are not sure what is causing the problem. It is also very common. Malwarebytes says that there were close to 200,000 total instances of malware on its customers’ devices in May and then again in June.

So how do you know if you have malware on your phone and how can you stop it? Here are some takeaways from malware experts on what you can do.

How malware works on your phone

Mobile malware usually takes one of two approaches, says Adam Bauer, a security researcher for the mobile security company Lookout. The first type of malware gives you permissions that give it access to sensitive information.

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Keep your Android phone safe from hackers with regular software updates.

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This is where the Ads Blocker app fits in, and many of the permissions it requested sound like something a real ad blocker would have needed. But they also let the app run constantly in the background and show users ads even when using unrelated apps.

The second type of malware exploits vulnerabilities in telephones and gains access to sensitive information by giving itself administrator privileges. It reduces the need to get users to click “OK” on permissions, making it easier for malware to run without users noticing its presence on the device.

Signs of malicious code on your phone

If you notice that these things are happening, your phone may be affected:

  • You see ads all the time, no matter what app you use.
  • You install an app and then the icon disappears immediately.
  • Your battery is drained much faster than usual.
  • You see apps you do not recognize on your phone.

All of these are worrying signs that mean you should investigate further.

Ransomware on Android phones

Another type of malware is ransomware. Victims often see their files locked and cannot be used. Usually requires a pop-up payment in bitcoin to get them back. Thankfully, most Android ransomware can only unlock files on external storage, such as photos, Bauer said.

What mobile malware can do

In addition to making you unhappy with constant ads, mobile malware can have access to private information. Common goals include:

  • Your bank details
  • Your device information
  • Your phone number or email address
  • Your contact lists
a Google Accounts login screen

Android phones infected with the Anubis bank trojan can invisibly log in passwords entered by users.

With permission of lookout

Hackers can use this information for a variety of malicious tasks. They may commit identity theft with your bank details. Anubis bank Trojan, for example, accomplishes this by tricking users into giving it access to the accessibility features of an Android phone. This in turn allows malware to log in to each app that users launch and the text they enter, including passwords. Once users have given permission, the malware’s activity is completely invisible on the screen, with no sign of anything malicious happening when users log in to their accounts.

Hackers can also use malware to collect and sell your device and contact information until you are flooded with robocalls, texts and, oh yeah, more ads; and they can send links for more malware to anyone on your contact list.

If you suspect that your information has already been captured in the robocall machine, you can see what your telephone operator offers to help keep annoying phone calls to a minimum. For example, customers of T-Mobile, Sprint and MetroPCS will have access to Scam Shield, a free app announced in July.

How to stop mobile malware on your Android phone

Whether you think you already have malware on your Android device or just want to protect yourself, there are clear steps you can take.

First, keep your phone software up to date. Security experts consistently rank an existing operating system and updated apps as one of the most important steps users can take to protect their devices and accounts. If you already have malware on your phone, update the software from your phone manufacturer – Android 10 or upcoming Android 11 – can fix vulnerabilities and suspend access to malware. Updates can also prevent malware from working in the first place.

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Then go through what permissions your apps have. Does a game have the ability to send SMS? It’s probably unnecessary and could be a red flag, Bauer said. Keep this in mind when installing apps in the future as well.

Removing apps that you think are malicious can be difficult. Sometimes you can just delete the app’s permissions, delete the app and be done with it. Other malicious apps give themselves administrator privileges, so they can not only be deleted without extra steps. If you are having trouble deleting a specific app, you can try looking it up online to find what has worked for other people.

You may also want to consider installing antivirus software. These services can sometimes slow down your phone, and they have increased access to your phone to detect malicious behavior and warn you, so you need to choose one you trust. And you will probably want to choose the paid option if you can, both to unlock all the best features and to avoid seeing even more ads.

The apps can warn you of malicious software on your phone and offer you customer service when you need to deal with something nasty. At the very least, you can use a well-known program like Malwarebytes, Norton, Lookout or Bitdefender to scan your device if you think you already have malware installed.

Finally, you can get rid of or avoid Android apps that are downloaded from third-party app stores. These apps do not crawl Google and can more easily sneak malware onto your phone. Google does not capture everything that reports malicious Android apps are removed show, but sticking to the official Google Play Store – and having a direct outlet to report problems you encounter – is another line of defense.

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