How can I tell if my phone has been hacked?

Revised Jan. 23, 2021

If your phone is displaying one of the following unusual behaviors, and especially if it’s displaying more than one, there’s a good chance that it may be hacked.

  1. Strange or inappropriate pop ups: Bright, flashing ads or X-rated content popping up on your phone may indicate malware. 
  2. Texts or calls not made by you: If you notice text or calls from your phone that you didn’t make, your phone may be hacked. 
  3. Higher than normal data usage: There are many reasons for high data usage (for example, increased use of a new app). But if your phone behavior has stayed the same and your data usage has skyrocketed, it’s time to investigate.
  4. Apps you don’t recognize on your phone: Keep in mind that new phones often come with pre-downloaded apps. But if you notice new apps popping up once you already own the phone, there may be malware involved. 
  5. Battery draining quickly: If your phone use habits have remained the same, but your battery is draining more quickly than normal, hacking may be to blame.

How can my phone be hacked?

Hackers can gain access to your phone in several ways, but they almost all require action on your part. For example, your phone can be hacked if you have:

1. Downloaded a malicious app

To avoid downloading an app that may be embedded with malware, only select apps from the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store.

You should also confirm that the developer listed for the app is correct. For example, the developer for the Gmail app should only be listed as Google LLC.

And lastly, read the app reviews. The majority of the reviews should be positive.

2. Clicked on a malicious link

If you receive an email or text from a sender you don’t know, avoid clicking any included links or downloading any attachments. There’s a chance they may include malware.

If you’re browsing the web and come across a link you think may be suspicious, plug it into a site scanner like Norton Safe Web before clicking on it.

3. Used unsecured public Wi-Fi

Using your phone to browse on public Wi-Fi can increase the chances of your phone being vulnerable to hacking. To keep your connections safer, use a VPN (virtual private network) for encryption and online privacy.

What do I do if my phone is hacked?

If you’ve determined that your phone has been hacked, there are some steps you can take to address it. Before you start, we recommend letting your contacts know that your phone has been hacked, and that they shouldn’t click any suspicious looking links they may have received from you. Here are more steps you can take.

Delete suspicious apps

As you’re now aware, downloading a suspicious app is a common way to invite malware onto your phone. If you find that your phone has been hacked, take an inventory of your apps and delete anything that came from a third-party source (in other words, not the Apple App Store or the Google Play store). Confirm that any recently downloaded apps came from reputable developers and have good reviews. If they don’t, delete them from your phone.

Run anti-malware software

Anti-malware software can help you identify and target malware lurking on your phone. You should run this regularly, but if you haven’t done so before, now is a good time to start.

Reset your phone

The majority of malware can be removed with a factory reset of your phone. This will, however, wipe any data stored on your device, such as photos, notes, and contacts, so it is important to back-up this data before resetting your device. Follow the instructions below to reset your iPhone or Android.

Instructions for resetting an iPhone

  1. If you have a Mac with macOS Catalina 10.15, open Finder. Otherwise, open iTunes. 
  2. Connect your iPhone to your computer. 
  3. Select your device on your computer. 
  4. Select Restore iPhone.

For more detailed instructions, visit Apple support.

Instructions for resetting an Android phone

  1. Android reset instructions vary by manufacturer. You should visit your phone manufacturer’s website for specific instructions. 
  2. For most Android phones, you can access the reset option via your settings menu, or by holding down the power and volume buttons.

For more detailed instructions, visit Google support.

Change your passwords

It’s possible that your login information was compromised when your phone was hacked. Once you’ve removed the malware, reset all of your passwords and create unique passwords for each account.

How do I keep my smartphone secure?

We’ve already discussed some of the ways you might download malware on your phone, so help avoid those by diligently vetting apps, checking suspicious links before clicking them, and steering clear of public Wi-Fi. Here are some more ways you can keep your phone secure.

  1. Avoid storing sensitive information (like credit card numbers) on your phone. Or, store them in a secure app. 
  2. Turn off Bluetooth when you’re not using it. 
  3. Create a custom passcode for accessing your phone. 
  4. Help protect your phone by installing the latest software updates as soon as they are released. 
  5. Lock individual apps. 
  6. Regularly monitor your phone for signs of unusual activity, like unusual pop ups or high battery usage.

The prospect of a hacked phone is certainly scary, but the good news is that you can take steps to prevent phone hacking (or to address it, if it’s already happened). Monitor your phone activity frequently and be smart about what you click, download and store.

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