It’s easy to forget that the device in your pocket isn’t just a phone. It’s a computer millions of times more powerful than the systems used for the moon landings in 1969.

Yet as of May 2016, 81 percent of the UK population had a smartphone - and we've never been more addicted to them. A third of UK adults have reported arguing with their partner about phone overuse. They also admit to regularly using it when with friends or watching television.

But while smartphone use is on the rise, so is mobile malware. Malware (or 'malicious software') is software that's designed to secretly control a device and steal private information. According to Symantec, the number of mobile vulnerabilities (weaknesses in a device's security system that can be exploited by criminals) has increased every year over the past three years. The volume of apps containing malware increased by 230 percent in 2015 - and that's just on Android.

It's not just Android

There is a common misconception with viruses on mobile devices: that Android devices are particularly vulnerable. Although it is true that Android devices account for 97 percent of mobile malware, there's a caveat: the majority of this 97 percent relates to small, unregulated third party app stores in the Middle East and Asia. The figure becomes 0.1 percent when using an official store, such as Google Play.

This 97 percent figure is therefore comparable to those for iOS, Blackberry and Windows Phones. In fact, Symantec data shows that vulnerabilities on the iOS platform have accounted for the greatest number of mobile vulnerabilities in recent years.

So here's the lesson: avoiding one operating system won't protect you from mobile malware. Here's how to protect yourself:

  • Always download verified apps from official sources, like the Google Play Store or the App Store, and read user reviews before downloading.
  • Check what permissions an app is asking for before installing it. Even seemingly benign apps can contain malicious code. Take the popular photo editing app, Meitu, for example. It came under recent scrutiny when users realised the app was accessing information like device location, local IP address, SIM card number, unique identity number (plus more) and sending it back to servers in China.
  • Install anti-virus software. Mobile anti-virus, like ESET Mobile Security, can scan your device for malware and help you stay protected.


Signs your phone has a virus

Unfortunately your phone may still become infected with malware, even if you're taking all the right preventative steps. Here's how to tell if your phone has a virus:

  1. Strange charges on your phone bill – Unexpected charges may be symptomatic of a virus. Malicious applications can make money by using your phone to send premium text messages or phone calls.
  2. Invasive adverts – Overbearing adverts are a sign that you may have adware on your phone. Adware can infect your device with malicious code.
  3. Contacts receiving strange messages – Malware can use your device to send spam texts, which can result in your contacts' devices becoming infected too.
  4. Poor performance – Like a computer, a slowdown in performance is a sure sign of infection.
  5. New applications – If new apps appear unexpectedly on your device, a malicious app could be downloading them onto your device. They may contain malware too.
  6. Abnormal data consumption – Malicious applications need to send and receive information from their creators via the internet. Your phone lets you see how much data your apps are consuming; look out for ones that are consuming more than you'd expect.
  7. Noticeable reduction in battery life – Poor battery life could mean that you're using a 'buggy' or badly-written app. However, it can also be a sign that your phone has a virus.


What to do in the event of infection

If you find out that your phone has a virus, it needs to be fixed as soon as possible. Firstly, switch the device to airplane mode. This will stop any malicious apps from receiving and sending data.

Secondly, check your most recently installed apps. If there are any that have a low number of downloads, consistently low ratings and poor reviews on the App Store or Google Play Store -  delete them first. This should remove any potentially malicious applications from your device.

Best practice suggests that no matter what type of device you have, you should install anti-virus software. This can carry out a scan of your handset for malicious software. ESET Mobile Security is Pensar's recommended choice.

Digital pocket protection

There will be over six billion smartphone users globally by 2020. With such prevalence smartphones are only going to become a more lucrative target to cyber-criminals. But, with a little knowledge and preemptive protection, your device can stay safe.

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