Con Watch: Apps Threaten Millions of Android Users

If you recently downloaded one of 200 apps from the Google Play store, you might want to check your phone bill for fraudulent charges.

Mobile phone apps popping out of the screen

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Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.

These days, there’s a mobile app for just about anything you could possibly want to do. Scammers are quite aware of this, which is why they are increasingly creating malware-infected apps. Recently, the mobile security firm Zimperium uncovered a massive app scam affecting more than ten million Android users around the world who downloaded any one of the 200 infected apps. The scammers managed to steal hundreds of millions of dollars from their victims through this scam.

When downloaded, the infected apps would cause pop-up ads and notifications of special offers and prizes to appear on the your phone. If you responded by providing your cell phone number as requested, you would unknowingly be signing up for a premium text message service that charged $35 or more monthly.

Perhaps most troubling aspect of this scam was that the malware-infected apps were available through the Google Play store. While Google tries to monitor the store to keep scammers out, they certainly aren’t perfect. Upon discovering the scam, Zimperium notified Google, who promptly removed the infected apps from the store. If you have an Android phone, you should check to see if you downloaded any of the infected apps.

This type of scam, known as cramming, is where unauthorized third-party charges are added to a consumer’s telephone bill without their knowledge or approval. There are many ways that these unauthorized charges make their way to a victim’s phone. Sometimes consumers unknowingly sign up for premium texting services that may be for things such as sports scores, horoscopes, or celebrity gossip. These fraudulent charges typically cost about $9.99 per month, but can be as high as $24.95.

In order to protect yourself from cramming, carefully review your phone bill each month to identify any new or unrecognized charges on your bill. These charges often have vague descriptions and may appear in sections of your bill labeled “miscellaneous,” “service fee,” “other fees,” or “third party charges.” It is a good practice to question any such charges you see on your bill if you don’t understand what they represent. Scammers rely on us being lazy and not taking the time to review our bills carefully, particularly when the charges appear to be relatively small. However, small monthly charges can add up considerably over time. Receiving unsolicited text messages is often an indication that you are a victim of cramming, so if you do receive such messages, check your phone bill carefully to see if these are related to unauthorized charges. Most cell phone carriers will allow you to block charges from third parties for free, which is a good way to avoid cramming.

This scam is a warning to all of us not to blindly trust that all of the apps found in legitimate app stores are safe. There are a few steps you can take to protect yourself from these app scams:

  • Limit your downloading of apps to legitimate sources such as the Apple App Store and Google Play to avoid malware infected apps. Although this is obviously not a perfect solution, your odds of avoiding malware are better at these recognized stores.
  • Before downloading any app, read the reviews carefully to see if other users have noted anything fishy. Note that you can’t depend on glowing reviews to be legitimate. Scammers will write extremely positive phony reviews about their apps. Often these phony reviews are cursory and do not provide much information.
  • Go directly to a legitimate company’s website for information about their apps. You can determine a website’s legitimacy by checking related bills or other documentation that indicates a correct URL.  In other cases, you can use whois.
  • Do a search using the words “fake app” along with the name of the company to see if there have been reports of problems.
  • Make sure that you have installed security software on your phone and that it is updated with the latest security patches.

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  1. Good helpful advice. Of course the BEST advice is to just avoid “apps” altogether. They’re a pain in the neck that don’t offer any real advantages to offset all of the negatives, Steve. I’m sick of having to watch enough things like a hawk as it is, that I don’t get screwed over; not to mention even more crap like this! Forget it!

    As Barbara and company say on ‘Shark Tank’, “I’m out!”


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