5 Signs Cybercriminals Have Infected Your Phone (And How to Fix It)

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You may have heard of - and grumbled about - the term ‘planned obsolescence’. It’s the idea that consumer products are designed with a specific lifespan in mind, and are prone to breakdown after that point, often when they have fallen out of warranty. Companies have widely denied that they engage in this practice, but it also seems true that the things we buy today don’t last as long as products of the past.

When people’s phones start to grind to a halt after just a year or two, many are quick to blame it on planned obsolescence. Yet in many cases, there’s actually a more mundane and more sinister reason: malware. You may not realise it, but phones are just as prone to viruses as computers, if not more so, and they can massively slow your phone down. Here are five signs your phone is infected with malware, and what to do if it is.


How to tell if your phone has a virus

Viruses and other malware want to make themselves hard to spot, which is why they’re so hard to deal with. While many people continue using their phones with no sense that anything’s amiss, however, there are warning signs you can watch out for. Here are some common ways you can tell whether your phone is infected with a virus:


Your phone is slower

The most obvious, telltale sign that your phone is infected with malware is when it becomes noticeably slower over a short period of time. The timescale is important, as phones are prone to becoming slower over time for reasons other than malware, or conspiracy theories. As apps and websites become more demanding, your phone will struggle more to run them, and keep them all open at the same time.

If your phone’s performance drops fairly suddenly and without obvious cause, however, that could be a sign of malware infection. Malware often uses your phone’s resources for other tasks, such as monitoring your data, displaying ads, or even mining cryptocurrency. Modern phones tend to keep themselves optimised to run as quickly as possible, so a sudden slowdown is often a big red flag.


The battery drains faster

Like a slowdown, poor battery life can just be a sign of a phone’s age. Batteries degrade over time, to the point that a battery may only last around half as long as when it was new after three or four years of heavy use. It will also depend on what you use the phone for, with videos and games played at high brightness consuming the most energy.

Again, however, a sudden drop in battery performance can be a sign of malware infection. This one is easier to diagnose than slow performance: your phone’s settings should allow you to see not only how quickly your battery has been used up (with a handy graph), but also which apps used the most battery. This could be a way to spot another item in our list…


Your data is disappearing

Data usage is an easy thing to miss given how much we can use our data organically, and how much data use can vary. If you have a large or unlimited data cap, you might not even notice gigabytes of data going missing each day. If you already suspect your phone might be infected, though, it’s worth checking your data usage in your phone’s network settings - and keeping an eye on the flashing network icon to show when it’s being used.

Malware can use up your data by sending information back to whoever created it. This might range from one-off transfers of personal information to using your phone to complete tasks online, such as forming part of a denial of service (DDoS) attack. This can not only use up your allowance or cause your speeds to be throttled, but also slow down your connection and your device, making it a troublesome and worrying issue.


You’re getting popup ads or notifications

From TV to cinemas to YouTube, we’ve all become used to a certain number of adverts in our daily lives. One kind of adverts we should never see is a pop-up, where the ad prevents us from doing anything on our device. Although some similarly irritating ads exist - fullscreen ads, anyone? - apps and websites are largely banned from (or have stopped using) pop-ups. Malware is less scrupulous, and can make ads appear on websites where they aren’t supposed to be.

Pop-up ads and unwanted notifications are one of the most common signs of malware infection, and one of the easiest things for malware to trigger. Ads generate revenue when you click on them, so malware is often designed to make it as easy to click on ads as possible. It does this by bombarding you with ads that are almost unclosable, at least without opening them accidentally. These aren’t the most dangerous side-effect of malware, but they are often the most visible - and annoying.


There are apps you don’t remember installing

Most of us probably have more apps installed than we ever use. Some might be utilities that we will need in the future but use sparingly, such as having Uber for when you travel to a big city. Many of them get used once or twice before languishing for years, only getting uninstalled if we start to run out of space. Well, lurking amongst all of these apps could be one you never installed, and which could be a sign of malware.

Just as malware often installs itself and supporting programs on your computer, malware on phones often installs its own apps. These might purport to be a useful piece of software, such as a phone cleaner, or even antivirus software. In reality, they are often just a way to get you to hand over access permissions, and let the app use your phone for more nefarious purposes - or simply a way to show you even more ads.


How to fix an infected phone

Many people do not realise that antimalware apps are available for phones in the same way as computers. In many cases, these offer real-time protection as well as letting you scan your phone for existing threats. Apps such as BitDefender, Avast and Norton provide robust malware scanning and protection tools, and should help to find and eliminate any malware on your device. Most phones also include built-in protection, but this is often less effective.

Sometimes malware can prevent you from installing apps or taking other actions that would remove it. If you’re still struggling with malware after using an antimalware app, try these steps:


1. Delete unwanted apps

As we’ve explained above, any unrecognised apps should be deleted as a matter of course, as they could be harbouring malware, and simply reinstall it when your antivirus is finished working. You should consider deleting any apps you simply don’t use very often, though, as even seemingly trustworthy apps could be infected or contain security flaws.


2. Clear your cache

Malicious files can sometimes hide in the temporary files used by our web browsers, including the browsers built into social media apps such as Facebook and Twitter. Go to each of these apps (both browsers and social media) and use their settings to delete cached files, if possible. 

If they don’t have this feature, you can go into your phone’s app settings menu, select each app and clear its temporary files that way. Note that either of these actions will likely delete things like cookies, logging you out of any websites.


3. Perform a factory reset

If you can’t get rid of the malware using antivirus software, and it keeps coming back despite deleting suspicious files, you may be forced to do a factory reset. Backup any files you need to and which are likely to be uninfected, such as photos. Be aware however that these may also be infected in some cases. Ideally, you should download them to a computer and scan them with PC antivirus software before returning them to your phone.

A factory reset can be performed on Android by going to Settings and then General Management or About Phone. On iPhones, it can be found by going to Settings, General, and then Transfer or Reset iPhone. While this will delete all of your files and apps, it should definitely solve the problem - and your account will usually remember the apps you had downloaded previously, allowing you to quickly reinstall them.

An infected phone is extremely frustrating at best, and at worst can put your personal information and other data at risk. By avoiding dodgy websites or downloads, and using an antimalware app, you can hopefully avoid getting infected in the first place - but if you do, the steps above should help you to solve the problem.


About the author:

Sota is one of the UK’s leading independent providers of professional IT services in Kent, including cloud computing, cyber resilience, connectivity, and unified communications. Having worked with countless businesses over the years, they are experts in their field, ready to advise and offer tailored solutions for each and every company. 

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