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University of Sunderland

Detecting and preventing mobile phone hacking

Posted on: October 20, 2023
Hooded cyber crime hacker using mobile phone internet hacking in to cyberspace,online personal data security concept.

Contact details, stored passwords and logins, credit card and banking information, photos and videos – the list of sensitive and personal data we store on our phones and mobile devices is extensive. And, as a result, there can be devastating consequences – both for you and your contacts – if your device falls victim to hackers and cybercriminals.

Mobile phone hacking and identity theft is on the rise: in 2022, half of all mobile phone users worldwide were exposed to a phishing attack every quarter. As well as phishing, common phone hacks include tracking software, malicious apps, SIM card swapping, trojans, spyware, and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth attacks. So, whatever type of mobile phone you use – whether an iPhone device, Android device or something else – understanding how to safeguard against cyberattacks and system vulnerabilities is extremely important.

How can you tell if your phone has been hacked?

There’s no shortage of innovative and ever-changing methods that cybercriminals will use in their attempts to gain access to your mobile phone. But how can you tell if you’ve fallen victim to a scam or mobile security breach?

According to antivirus specialists, AVG, there are a number of signs that your cell phone has been hacked:

  • Is your device running slower than usual? Declining phone performance is one of the most common signs of hacking. This could look like apps suddenly crashing, websites taking a long time to load, difficulties sending and receiving messages, or even issues with turning your device on and off. If this is the case, malware may be disrupting your phone’s processing power or bandwidth.
  • Does your phone feel hot? While phones can heat up if used for extended periods – such as when gaming or streaming films for hours at a time – devices that feel hot when they aren’t being used can signify hacking.
  • Is your battery draining faster than usual? There are lots of reasons why battery life might drain quicker than usual – such as having lots of background apps open – but, in cases where everything is normal, there could be a more malicious reason.
  • Are you experiencing service disruptions? All of us will experience poor connections and calls that cut out from time to time. However, regular service disruptions can be a sign of suspicious activity.
  • Are strange pop-ups appearing? An increase in pop-up ads can indicate a type of malicious software, known as adware, on your device.
  • Do websites look different? Malware can act as a proxy between you and the websites you try to access. If lots of websites look different or unexpected, malware may have redirected you somewhere else.
  • Are new apps appearing on your device? The presence of suspicious apps you don’t recognise or remember installing onto your device can be a sign that your phone is compromised.
  • Are you receiving unknown phone calls and text messages? Phishing texts containing malicious links, and calls from unknown or concealed phone numbers are a common method used by hackers. Additionally, if someone you know tells you that you texted or called them when you didn’t – or vice versa – it’s likely to be a hack.
  • Are you running out of data when you shouldn’t be? High data usage and unexpected spikes can be the result of a hacker stealing your data and using your device to transmit the compromised data.
  • Have there been unexpected bill charges? Mysterious charges and unusual activity can mean your device has been exposed to fleeceware, that someone is using your phone remotely, or that your data usage has increased because your data is being shared elsewhere.

Keep an eye out for these common signs – and remember to act quickly if you believe your phone has been hacked.

What should you do if your phone has been hacked?

In the event that your phone’s security is at risk, you must act immediately.

If you haven’t already done so, download and run robust online protection software on your smartphone. Delete any suspicious text messages you have received or unexpected apps you didn’t download, and then run the software once again.

Wiping your phone and performing a factory reset is another option. Ensure you have any contacts, media and vital data backed up in the Cloud, and then wipe and restore your device. Details of how to do this for your specific device can be found online.

If unauthorised purchases or changes have impacted your online accounts – such as transactions on your bank statements that weren’t your doing – freeze the affected accounts, report suspicious activity to your service providers, cancel related cards and change your credentials.

What are the ways to protect a device against phone hacking?

Is there a way to block hackers and prevent them from attacking your phone in the first place?

Fortunately, the answer’s yes – there are several precautions you can take to keep using your phone safely. Here are five of the most valuable:

  1. Use a virtual private network (VPN). Using unsecured, untrustworthy public Wi-Fi networks without protection is one of the quickest ways to expose your mobile phone to hackers. A VPN works by masking your connection from hackers to keep your sensitive data, activities and documents safe.
  2. Use two-factor authentication and ID credentials. Touch ID, facial recognition, voice ID, secure pins – all will help to protect your phone. Back up all your basic precautions and lock down permissions further with two-factor authentication where and when it’s offered, and always use strong password.
  3. Back up your phone’s data. Backing up data not only makes switching to a new phone easier, but ensures your data remains with you in the event that a phone is lost or stolen. You can then wipe a compromised device without the fear of losing your data.
  4. Delete old apps and update the current ones. Every app on your device is another app that needs updating – otherwise it could be at risk of security vulnerabilities. To make your life easier, delete apps that are no longer needed, and make sure to regularly update ones that are still used. In fact, it’s a good idea to turn on auto-updates (such as the operating system iOS updates on iPhones ) if that’s an option. Additionally, stick to the official app stores for your apps, such as Google Play Store for Android phones, and the Apple App Store for iPhones.
  5. Learn how to lock or wipe your phone remotely. Google, Apple and other manufacturers offer step-by-step or how-to guides to help users remotely wipe their phones in the event that a device truly is gone.

Of course, installing highly effective antivirus software and security apps on your device is strongly recommended, and can mean the difference between keeping your purchases, data and payments secure from malicious software.

Stay ahead of the cybersecurity game and protect sensitive information

Gain the skills to join the forefront of cybersecurity – and help to fight cybercrime – with the University of Sunderland’s online MSc Computer Science Cybersecurity programme.

You’ll learn how to develop and implement resilient, effective cybersecurity solutions, and gain expertise in the broader computer science space, on a flexible course that fits around your existing commitments. Engaging topics span key areas such as software engineering, databases, network architecture, usability, data science and computer science principles and practice. Alongside this, you’ll be supported to learn key programming languages such as Python, R, CISCO and Oracle.

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