The prescription for cell phone viruses

Smartphones need to take precautions against malware too

A lot has been written about viruses infecting cell phones. It's a timely topic, because viruses for smartphones are starting to gain traction --one recent survey suggested that 18 percent of devices have had malware infections, but that most users don't even check.

However, unlike malware that can infect your computer, cell phone viruses have trouble replicating, and need to be actively installed by users, likely under the guise of something else. As of today, no self-installing cell phone viruses have been found. That  means that although malware infecting your mobile device is more likely than it used to be, your device is still much less vulnerable than your desktop or notebook PC.

A cell phone virus can spread in three primary ways. The first is by a multimedia text message. Much like e-mail on your computer, a text message with an attachment could hide a virus. You would then have to run the program and install the virus yourself. Of course it could say that it’s really a game, screensaver, ringtone or nude pictures of Lindsay Lohan, but if you don’t pull the trigger yourself, it can’t hurt you.

The second method, which is becoming increasingly popular in the virus-writing community, is to use Bluetooth. Bluetooth makes life easier. It lets my wife talk with her new Ford Focus by using the Sync service, turning her vehicle into something akin to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. However, that easy connectivity that makes Bluetooth so useful also makes it risky. A phone that’s infected can now constantly search for other Bluetooth phones and send virus code over to any that slip into range. (You still have to accept and install the program, though.)

To prevent this from happening to your phone, simply turn the Bluetooth auto-discovery mode off. It’s like hiding your wireless access point from the outside world. It might mean an extra step to get a new Bluetooth device connected to your phone, but it will keep you safe from unwanted visitors with infected files.

The third way that a cell phone can become infected is pretty much the way a PC does most of the time: surfing the Internet. Most smartphones today can browse the Internet and download files. However, this is currently the least effective way for a phone to get a virus, because it requires a user not only to download an infected file but also to install it.  That's two opportunities you have to reconsider. However, even seemingly trustworthy files such as apps for a smartphone can hide a malicious program.

So what do you do if you’ve been infected? Thankfully, most cell phone viruses aren’t as robust as the ones on the PC, at least not yet. Like PC viruses, it’s still best to catch them before they get onto your phone, but most can be removed after the fact without causing further damage. A good program that works with Android, WindowsMobile and Symbian phones is PhoneGuard. We’ve used it to protect smartphones in the lab and to heal ones that have been infected. Most large AV companies like Symantec and Trend Micro also have cellphone security packages to go along with their Internet security, though it’s still somewhat rare compared to PC packages.

With the right protection, and by taking several simple steps, you can keep your smartphone safe from harm. And remember, you can’t get infected right now if you don’t install an infection yourself. So if you’re not 100 percent sure, leave it off your phone.

Stay safe out there!

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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Reader comments

Thu, Sep 9, 2010

An ip co phoned me to say "malicious mail" on my computer was slowing server. But i dont have a computer! I do sometimes browse on phone though. Vj

Wed, Aug 4, 2010 Ruth Santa Fe, NM

Thanks for the write up on phone guard. I heard it was good and it helps to have your confirmation. How did you hear about it, John?

Thu, Jul 22, 2010 Holt Roussel USA

Are there any reports of iPhones being infected with malware? If so, are there any programs to remove the malware?

Fri, Jul 16, 2010 Vivian

It worked! I used the PhoneGuard and it scanned my phone. It found a virus called CallCellIV or something like that. It deleted it and my phone is now protected from future outbreaks. Thanks so much for your help.

Fri, Jul 16, 2010

As more of the tablet computers that use Android or other smart phone Operating systems come out on the market the more serious this will become.

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