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7 Tips to Keep Hackers, Crooks and Scammers Out of Your Smartphone

by Carrie Bebermeyer on 12/02/2019
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We love our smartphones – in fact, they’re often our biggest confidants when it comes to sharing important personal information. 

Flavio Esposito, Ph.D.

Flavio Esposito, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science at Saint Louis University. Photo by Ellen Hutti. 

In the palm of our hands we have photo albums, bank terminals, wallets, home controls, medical records, personal messages and contacts, social media and physical locators, all conveniently accessible through our iPhones and Androids.

Flavio Esposito, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science at Saint Louis University, says the convenience comes at a cost.

“Our phone is as weak as our weakest app.” 

Flavio Esposito, Ph.D.

Hackers can exploit network vulnerabilities to steal passwords without being detected or use malicious media files disguised in photos or videos to access messages on unpatched phones. Often, thieves find their way in to access data through one of a phone’s apps or a website.

“Our phone is as weak as our weakest app,” Esposito said.

“We should not use our phones or our smartwatches to store anything that has value.  While several banks use state-of-the art security countermeasures, security breaches often arrive from browsing websites. Aside from increasing our security, it is important to realize that our location can be obtained even without an active GPS, and without asking permission.” 

And, Esposito warns, data theft is not the only risk. Our phones now serve as our ID when we need to identify ourselves to other accounts. This happens when you receive a code by text to verify your identity to an account, and is called two-factor authentication.

In one recent scam, fraudsters attempted a “sim card swap,” convincing a service provider to switch a person’s phone number to a SIM card they own, then logging into their bank account and resetting their passwords.

“The best advice I can give is to read about security and privacy,” Esposito said. “The best way to avoid scams is to be informed.” 

While the specter of data and identity theft can be alarming, there are several steps you can take to significantly reduce your chances of being hacked. Esposito shares the following advice to keep your data safe from scammers.

Seven Tips to Protect Your Smartphone Now

  1. Lock Your (Virtual) Doors
    Use very strong passwords, Esposito says, and change them often. Ideally, passwords are at least 12 characters long, include numbers and symbols and don’t include obvious dictionary words.  If you’re in a public place entering your pin number, cover your phone with your hand.  
  2. It’s Time to Log Off
    Log off of social media platforms when you are not using them.
  3. Not Just for Desktops 
    Install Adblocker apps on your phone and do not disable them even when you are asked. Malicious code often lands on our phones through web advertising. Install antivirus apps, too. Be careful not to open suspicious spam and fishing emails.
  4. Stop Procrastinating
    Always update your operating system and your apps as soon as they are available.
  5. Say Goodbye to Public Wi-fi
    Absolutely avoid public (open) wi-fi. Instead, Esposito suggests investing in a good data plan and using your phone as a router (tethering) when you don't have other secure choices. If this isn’t an option, limit your time on public wi-fi.
  6. Find Another Place to Store Your Valuables
    Do not store anything valuable on the phone and be sure to frequently back up all files you care about.
  7. No Jailbreaks
    Do not jailbreak your phone. Jailbreaking means freeing your iPhone from the limitations imposed by Apple. Some users do this to be able to more freely customized their device, but it can allow hackers to hijack any information connected to the phone.  If a company imposes a limitation, they do so, in part, to increase your security.

Saint Louis University is a Catholic, Jesuit institution that values academic excellence, life-changing research, compassionate health care, and a strong commitment to faith and service. Founded in 1818, the University fosters the intellectual and character development of more than 13,500 students on campuses in St. Louis and Madrid, Spain. Building on a legacy of nearly 200 years, Saint Louis University continues to move forward with an unwavering commitment to a higher purpose, a greater good.