(UPDATED): If your smartphone is acting weird, something is up. Is it a glitch that will go away when you turn your phone off and on again? Or could it be hacked?
Since smartphones can be hacked just like computers, odd changes in phone behavior that continue after you’ve turned it off and on again mean more than a simple tech glitch. Malware designed to extract your data, lock up your phone until you pay a ransom (ransomware), or using your phone as a spam-sending tool is super-profitable for hackers. So, they’re super-common, too — especially during times when people are distracted and less likely to be less careful about what they download, such as during a pandemic.
Here’s how to tell if your phone may be hacked
- Poor battery life. Malware uses battery power to do all sorts of things, from redirecting your search traffic to messing with your data to sending spam. Check your iPhone or Android to see which apps are using up the most energy. Does the usage make sense based on your habits? Apps running in the background can suck up power so make sure your settings aren’t the issue before you worry about having been hacked.
- Too much data usage. Streaming apps like Netflix use a ton of data. So do social media apps (like TikTok and Instagram) and GPS and ridesharing apps (like Uber, Lyft, Google Maps, and Waze). Check your cellular data on your Android or iPhone. Do you see activity that looks out of line with your usage when you’re not on WiFi?
- Too much data stored on your phone. Apps with malware can take up way more MB storage than seems Check your iPhone or Android to see how many MB each app is using. Is a simple calculator app gobbling up a ton of space? It could be malware.
- Comes alive in the middle of the night. Does your phone suddenly wake up without you touching it? Zombie phone activity is not good. Something is using your phone and it’s not you.
- Constant popups. Some popups are delivered by legitimate apps but others are adware (a type of malware) and others contain malicious links. Don’t click.
- Acting sluggish overall. If your phone is slower than it used to be and doesn’t respond to commands as quickly, malware could be busy doing things in the background.
On the other hand, your phone could be acting weird because it has a hardware problem — the power button or charging port can fail, for example. Pixel problems tend to be hardware problems, and so do some battery-draining issues. Call tech support if you’re experiencing any of these. Hopefully, your phone is still under warranty.
Clues not related to phone performance
Maybe your phone is acting fine but you notice other strange things that could be related to hacking, such as:
Too many texts. If your invoice shows texts you didn’t send, your phone could be being used to send spam. Hackers who send text spam don’t want to pay for it. They’d rather use your phone and have you pay. If you have an unlimited plan, your phone could be sending countless texts without you knowing it unless you look at your bill.
Pilfered balance. If you have a lower-than expected credit balance in your Google Play account, it could be due to hacking. Someone is spending that balance. It could be malware from a fake store.
Unexpected account activity. If accounts linked to your phone are showing unusual activity — password resets or odd verifications showing up in your email inbox are two examples — a hacker may have gained access to your phone. Which means the hacker can get access to your app accounts, too (ouch).
Keeping an eye out for anything unusual related to your phone and app accounts is a good idea, especially if you have an Android. There’s still far more malware created for Android devices than iOS devices because the operating system (OS) is open source. And while it’s best to only get Android apps from the Google Play store, it doesn’t mean you won’t unknowingly download malware. In 2019, about 25,000 malware apps were uploaded to Google Play.
If you think your phone may have been hacked, here’s what you can do about it
- Protect your phone. There are plenty of antivirus apps that keep malware from getting on your phone in the first Tom’s Guide has recommendations for Android and Techradar.pro lists top options for iOS. These apps scan your phone to get rid of anything bad and protect it from now on.
- Reset your phone to factory settings. It’s not the most convenient thing to do because you’ll need to customize your phone again, but 99% of the time, reloading your software and apps will get rid of malicious code.
- Back up Better yet, set your phone to backup automatically. If your phone starts acting weird, you can revert to your last pre-infected backup.
- Remove apps you’re not actively using. Every app is a potential problem and you can always re-download apps if you want them back.
- Don’t jailbreak your phone. Hackers love jailbroken phones.
- Don’t download apps from random websites or social media. If they’re legit, they’ll be on Google Play. (Apple devices only download apps from the App Store.)
- Keep your OS up to date. You don’t need to be the first person to update (in case there are bugs to be worked out) but make sure to update within a week or two of a new OS release. New releases fix bugs and have security patches.
When to tell your employer about a smartphone acting weird
If you use your smartphone for work, you need to tell your company if you think your phone might have been hacked. It’s the right thing to do — you don’t want to spread an infection to your company’s network or put its data at risk. Plus, you could be protecting yourself because any bad actions taken against your company through your phone could look like they came from you!
If your employer is a Leapfrog client, please contact our IT Support Center so we can troubleshoot for you.