Today’s smartphones hold all the keys to our communications, finances, data, and social lives, which makes these ubiquitous devices lucrative targets for cybercriminals.
Whatever smartphone you use — whether it’s an Android device from Google, Samsung, or Motorola, or an Apple iOS-based iPhone — threat actors are ever busy evolving their tactics to break into these handsets.
There are billions of smartphone users worldwide, and none of them can completely avoid cyberattacks. Spam, phishing, malicious apps, and ransomware are only some of the threats that mobile device users face today — and the attack techniques get more sophisticated every year.
To stay protected, we need to understand and recognize the most common threats to smartphone security in 2023. This is our guide to what those threats are, the best defenses for avoiding those threats, and what to do if you suspect your device has been compromised.
Here they are: the top threats to Android and iOS smartphone security in 2023.
1. Phishing, smishing, and vishing
Phishing occurs when attackers send you fake and fraudulent messages. Cybercriminals attempt to lure you into sharing personal information, clicking malicious links, downloading and unwittingly executing malware on your device, or handing over your account details — for a bank, shopping site, social network, email, and more.
Phishing also can be used to install malware or surveillance software on your handset.
Mobile devices are vulnerable to phishing through all the same avenues that PCs are — including email and social network messages. However, mobile devices are also vulnerable to smishing, which are phishing attempts sent over SMS texts.
Spear phishing is a step up in the cybercriminal game, with attackers conducting surveillance first to gather information on their intended victim. Typically, spear phishing — aka targeted pishing — occurs against high-value individuals, and the motives can be financial or political gain.
Vishing — that’s short for voice phishing — is another attack vector gaining in popularity. Attackers employing this method will use voice services to try and defraud their victim. This can include leaving voicemails, using automated robocalls, voice-altering systems, and more to trick individuals into providing sensitive information.
Your best defense: Don’t click on links in emails or text messages unless you are completely sure they are legitimate. Be wary of unexpected calls or voicemails, and treat them as suspicious unless proven otherwise.
2. Physical security
Many of us forget an essential security measure: physically securing our mobile devices. If you don’t use a PIN code, pattern, or biometric check such as a fingerprint or retina scan, your handset could be vulnerable to tampering. In addition, if you leave your phone unattended, it may be at risk of theft.
Your best defense: At a minimum, lock down your phone with a strong password or PIN number; that way, if it ends up in the wrong hands, your data and accounts can’t be accessed.
You also should consider enabling security features provided by Apple and Google to help you recover your device in theft cases. Apple’s Find My service tracks down devices including iPhones, iPads, and AirPods, whereas Google can also track your smartphone and tablet.
3. SIM hijacking
SIM hijacking, also known as SIM swapping or SIM porting, is the abuse of a legitimate service offered by telecom firms when customers need to switch their SIM and telephone numbers between operators or handsets.
Typically, a customer will call their telecom provider, prove their identity as an account holder, and then request a switch. An attacker, however, will use social engineering and the personal details they discover about you — including your name, physical address, and contact details — to assume your identity, instead, and dupe customer service representatives into giving them control of your number.
In successful attacks, a cybercriminal can redirect your phone calls and texts to a handset they own. Importantly, this also means any two-factor authentication (2FA) codes used to protect your email, social media, and banking accounts, among others, will also end up in their hands.
SIM hijacking is often a targeted attack as it takes data collection and physical effort to pull off. However, when successful, such an attack can be disastrous for your privacy and the security of your online accounts.
Your best defense: Protect your data through an array of cybersecurity best practices so that it can’t be used against you via social engineering. Try not to overshare online. Consider asking your telecom provider to add a “Do not port” note to your file (unless you visit in person), especially if you know your information has been leaked due to a data breach. You can use Have I Been Pwned to check on the current status of possible breaches.
4. Apps: Nuisanceware, premium service dialers, and cryptocurrency miners
Your mobile device is also at risk of nuisanceware and malicious software that will force the device to either make calls or send messages to premium numbers without your consent.
Nuisanceware is malware found in apps (more commonly in the Android ecosystem than iOS) that makes your handset behave in annoying ways. Nuisanceware is not typically dangerous, but can still be very irritating and a drain on your power. You may be bombarded with pop-up ads, for example, or be shown promotions and survey requests. In addition, nuisanceware can launch ad-laden web pages and videos in your mobile browser.
Nuisanceware is often developed to generate income for its makers fraudulently, such as through clicks and ad impressions.
Premium service dialers, however, are worse.
Apps can contain malicious, hidden functions that will covertly sign you up for paid, premium services. Texts can be sent and calls to premium numbers made, with victims required to pay for these services — and attackers pocketing the cash.
Some apps can also quietly steal your device’s computing resources to mine for cryptocurrency. These apps sometimes slip through an app store’s security net and, in the past, have been found in official app repositories including Google Play. The problem is that cryptocurrency mining code can be found in seemingly legitimate apps such as mobile VPNs, games, and streaming software.
Your best defense: Only download apps from legitimate app stores. Be careful and don’t just gloss over the permissions requested by new mobile apps. If you encounter overheating and battery drain after downloading new software, this could be a sign of malicious activity — so you should run an antivirus scan and consider uninstalling suspicious apps.
5. Open Wi-Fi
Open and unsecured Wi-Fi hotspots are everywhere, from hotel rooms to coffee shops. They are intended to be a customer service, but their open nature also opens them up to attack.
Specifically, your handset or PC could become susceptible to Man-in-The-Middle (MiTM) attacks through open Wi-Fi connections. An attacker will intercept the communication flow between your handset and browser, stealing your information, pushing malware payloads, and potentially allowing your device to be hijacked.
Every so often, you also can encounter “honeypot” Wi-Fi hotspots. These are open Wi-Fi hotspots created by cybercriminals, disguised as legitimate and free spots, for the sole purpose of performing MiTM attacks.
Your best defense: Avoid using public Wi-Fi altogether and use mobile networks instead. If you must connect to them, consider using a virtual private network (VPN). If you are using sensitive services, such as a banking app, always switch over to a cellular connection for added security.
6. Surveillance, spying, and stalkerware
Surveillanceware, spyware, and stalkerware come in various forms. Spyware is often generic and will be used by cyberattackers to steal personally identifiable information and financial details.
However, surveillanceware and stalkerware are typically more personal and targeted. For example, in the case of domestic abuse, a partner (or ex-partner) may install surveillance software on your phone to keep track of your contacts, phone calls, and GPS location.
Sometimes, apps marketed as parental control software or employee monitoring solutions can be abused to invade your privacy.
Symptoms of infection may include higher-than-normal power usage and the presence of unfamiliar apps. On Android devices, you may notice that the setting, “allow/install unknown apps” has been enabled. You should also watch out for unexpected behavior and increased mobile data usage.
Your best defense: An antivirus scan should take care of generic spyware. While there’s no magic bullet for surveillanceware or stalkerware, you should watch out for any suspicious or unusual behavior on your device. If you think you are being monitored, put your physical safety above all else.
Ransomware can impact mobile devices as well as PCs. Ransomware will encrypt files and directories, locking you out of your phone, and will demand payment in cryptocurrency in return for a decryption key.
Examples of ransomware detected over the last few years include Cryptolocker, WannaCry, BadRabbit, and Ruk.
Ransomware is often found in third-party apps or deployed as a payload on malicious websites. For example, you may see a pop-up request to download an app — disguised as anything from a software cracker to a betting app — and your handset can then be encrypted in minutes. However, ransomware is less common on mobile platforms than on PCs.
Alternatively, if cyberattacks can steal your Google or Apple ID credentials, they may abuse remote locking features and demand payment.
Your best defense: Keep your phone up-to-date with the latest firmware, and your Android or iOS handset’s fundamental security protections enabled. Don’t download apps from sources outside official repositories and run frequent antivirus scans. If you encounter ransomware, you might need to restore your phone from a backup or bring it back to factory settings.
8. Trojans and financial malware
There are countless mobile malware variants, but Google and Apple’s fundamental protections stop many in their tracks. However, of all the malware families you should be familiar with, trojans top the list.
Trojans are forms of malware that are developed specifically with data theft and financial gains in mind. Mobile variants include Zeus, TickBot, EventBot, MaliBot, and Drinik.
Most of the time, users download the malware themselves, which may be packaged up as an innocent and legitimate app or service. However, once they have landed on your handset they overlay legitimate banking app windows and steal the credentials you submit, such as a password or PIN code.
This information is then sent to an attacker and can be used to pillage your bank account. Some variants may also intercept 2FA verification codes sent to your mobile device.
The majority of financial trojans target Android handsets. iOS variants are rarer, but strains still exist.
Your best defense: Keep your phone up-to-date with the latest firmware and enable your Android or iOS handset’s fundamental security protections. Ensure you only download apps from sources outside official repositories. If you suspect your phone has been compromised, stop using financial apps, cut off your internet connection, and run an antivirus scan. You may also wish to contact your bank and check your credit report if you suspect fraudulent transactions have been made.
9. Mobile device management exploits
Mobile Device Management (MDM) solutions are enterprise-grade tools suited for the workforce. MDM features can include secure channels for employees to access corporate resources and software, spreading a company’s network security solutions and scans to each endpoint device, and blocking malicious links and websites.
However, if the central MDM solution is infiltrated or otherwise compromised, each mobile endpoint device is also at risk of data left, surveillance, or hijacking.
Your best defense: The nature of MDM solutions takes control out of the hands of end users. Therefore, you can’t protect against MDM compromise. What you can do, however, is maintain basic security hygiene on your device, make sure it is up-to-date, and keep your personal apps and information off your work devices.