By Kim Komando. Updated January 10, 2017.
For millions of Americans, the smartphone has become one of the most important tools in their lives. Your phone tracks your movements, absorbs emails and text messages and notifies you of every birthday and appointment. Every second, information floods your smartphone. Unless you switch them off, your apps are working round the clock, obeying your every setting and preference.
All day long your phone is churning private data through its circuitry, and if criminals can break into your phone, they can steal all kinds of things, from banking details to compromising photos and video. These thieves don't have to steal your actual phone. They may not even be located in the same country.
How do they do it? Spyware, which is kind of like a computer virus, except instead of messing up your hard drive, it enables strangers to snoop on you. Skilled hackers can install spyware on your phone without you even realizing it.
Once it's on your phone, spyware can record everything you do, from sending text messages to shooting video of your family reunion. Hackers may break into private accounts, commandeer email and even blackmail their victims.
Keep in mind, "spyware" is a vague and multi-faceted term, and it's not always malevolent. Some parents install a kind of spyware on their kids' smartphones in order to keep track of their activities. Managers sometimes keep tabs on their employees by watching what they do on their company computers. I don't endorse this behavior, and I think there are much healthier ways of watching kids and employees, but this kind of spyware isn't intended to ruin your life.
Don't click strange links. The easiest way to avoid contracting spyware is this: Don't click strange links. If you receive an email from a suspicious stranger, don't open it. If you receive an email or text from someone you do know but the message seems peculiar, contact your friend by phone or social media to see whether the message was intended.
This might sound obvious, but sometimes our curiosity gets the better of us. When a link appears, some of us struggle to avoid clicking it, just because we want to know where it leads. Other times, an authentic-looking email is actually a phishing scam in disguise. If you're the least bit doubtful, don't click.
Lock your phone. Some types of phones are more susceptible to spyware than others. (More about this below). But owners can dramatically reduce their chances of infection by locking their phones. A simple PIN will deter most hackers.
Also avoid lending your phone to strangers. Yes, some people honestly forget their chargers at home and urgently need to call their spouses. But a clever con artist only needs your unlocked phone for a minute to cause a lot of damage. In this case, being a Good Samaritan is risky business.
Androids and spyware. The bad news is this: Android phones are particularly vulnerable to spyware. It's simple to install a spying app on any Android gadget, but only once you get past the lock screen.
To protect yourself, make sure you have the lock screen turned on and no one knows the PIN, password or pattern. You can make it even harder by blocking the installation of third-party apps. To do this, go to Settings; Security and uncheck the Unknown Sources option. It won't stop a really knowledgeable snoop, but it could stump less-savvy ones.
iPhones and spyware. Apple users can get pretty smarmy about their products. If you own an iPhone, you probably already know that your phone is far safer from malware than Android gadgets. A recent "Forbes" study showed that nearly 97 percent of all known malware threats only affect Android devices.
That's good news for Mac addicts, but it can also make owners overconfident. Last August, Apple had to release an extremely critical iOS update to patch a security threat. Before the update, an attacker could take over and fully control an iPhone remotely just by clicking the right link.
Investigators learned that this kind of attack was called Trident, and the spyware was called Pegasus. The latest iOS was partly designed to prevent these exploits from damaging your iPhone. This is just one reason you should keep your iPhone up to date.
To get the latest version of iOS, go to Settings; General; Software Update. Your device will then automatically check for the latest version of the Apple operating system.
Secondhand smartphones. Beware the secondhand smartphone. Sometimes they're handy, because a jail-broken phone is cheap and disposable and may work with many service providers. But they may also come with spyware already installed.
Buying a secondhand phone is a common practice, especially if you're traveling in a foreign country or you're between contracts and just need something for the short-term. If you have any suspicions about your phone, your best tactic is to reset factory settings. It's inconvenient, but it might save you a lot of heartache down the line.