Protect Your Smartphone from Mobile Malware

Only computers catch viruses, right? Hackers exclusively target popular desktop operating systems, and because your smartphone runs on entirely different software, it can’t possibly be at risk. Right?

Wrong. A recent study found that mobile malware rose in 2011 a whopping 155 percent. That means hackers are increasingly targeting smartphones and their users, with attacks that are growing sneakier and more sophisticated.

This is not to say you should lock your phone inside a closet and never touch it again. Although the risks of mobile malware are on the rise, you can enjoy your smartphone’s many features safely by using common sense and learning a few security techniques.

For example, be careful about the apps you install. One popular scheme these days is to pirate a popular free app, then trick users into paying for it. In fact, some apps will go even further by secretly sending “premium” text messages to the thieves—and leave you holding the bill for the charges.

To avoid these kinds of scams, do a little research before you install any app. Search online for both professional and user reviews, then make note of the developer and pricing model. Then, if you see an app-store listing that doesn’t quite match up—the developer’s name is different, or you’re being charged for an app that’s known to be free or “freemium”—steer clear.

At the same time, avoid unauthorized—or at least unsupervised—app stores. GetJar, for example, promotes itself as “the world’s largest free app store,” offering choices for Android, BlackBerry, and other platforms. However, because it’s an “independent” store, there’s little regulation. Cyber criminals could easily distribute a malware-infested app, and it could be days, weeks, or even months before the app gets discovered and/or removed.

iPhone owners have only one source for apps—Apple’s App Store—unless they “jailbreak” their device, which opens the door to a wide assortment of unapproved apps. Most of these are harmless, but jailbreak app stores offer criminals an easy way to distribute their malevolent wares.

Alas, these evil-doing developers have focused most of their attention on the Android operating system. According to McAfee, there was a 76 percent rise in Android malware in the second quarter of 2011, and in the third quarter, nearly all new mobile malware was targeted to Android.

What’s a concerned Android smartphone owner to do? For starters, don’t panic. The vast majority of apps — especially those you find in Amazon’s Appstore and Android Market — are safe. And if you stick with popular, well-known apps, you’re unlikely to ever encounter app-powered mayhem.

On the flip side, there are certain kinds of apps you should definitely avoid. To paraphrase the old saying, any app that sounds too good to be true probably is. That means anything promising free wallpaper, free MP3s, free movies, and the like could be dangerous. And if an app offers free versions of apps you know cost money, remember that other old saying: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

There’s another scam criminals love to pull, one adapted from the desktop: bogus antivirus apps. Think about it: You’re browsing the app store when you see Malware Killer Pro Free, which looks totally legitimate and promises complete, real-time protection from viruses, spyware, phishing, the whole enchilada. And maybe that’s exactly what it does—or maybe it’s a fake, an app that gathers up your private data and sends it off to the bad guys.

Now that smartphone malware is a real threat, antimalware apps are a good idea. Just make sure you get one from a well-known, reputable company. And be prepared to pay a few bucks for it; reliable protection is usually worth it.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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