Protect yourself from Internet wildlife

I bricked my phone. Rendered it completely and irrecoverably useless. How? Downloading from a fake app store a fake word processing program in the form of an apk. file, or an executable program file.

Immediately my screen was replaced with a false FBI notice saying my phone had been scanned, illegal content had been found, and that my camera was taking pictures of me to forward to the FBI. I tried everything I could to eliminate the Trojan, including rebooting in safe mode, which worked well enough for me to call the manufacturer, Motorola, and ask how to remove this piece of malware.

Bricked and beaten

The phone was essentially locked. The Trojan said I could pay a $390 “fine” using a common funds transfer program to a given address, but I’d heard of such scams before, knew that even if I were dumb enough to pay the so-called fine, the malefactors would probably just laugh at my gullibility and/or collect the money and walk away.

Motorola said to go to settings, engage the reset and restore setting, and though I’d lose all my data, the phone would be restored to its factory settings. I tried this procedure, and the phone rebooted, began to upgrade the system software from Jellybean 4.2 to KitKat 4.44, then froze. All further attempts at recovery failed.

I know. It was my own fault. Motorola agreed, and said that bricking the phone was a user error, and not covered by warranty. So goodbye phone, hello replacement.

What I did was terminally stupid, I know, but I was much too casual to follow my own advice and order apps from only Google Play or Amazon or the store sponsored by my carrier, Boost Mobile.

But even careful, forewarned users can fall victim to the huge growth in malware, a loose term for the fast growing number of viruses, Trojans, keyloggers and other malicious software that is spreading through the Android ecosystem like wildfire.

Trend Micro, one of the leading anti-malware software packages, says it has detected 350,000 threats for Android, with a ratio of 14:3 for Android vs Windows. In other words, in just three years Android has seen the number of threats it took Windows 14 years to accumulate.

How can you avoid this onslaught?

First, use common sense. Never download an app from an unknown source. Stay with the ones I mentioned above. Second, never download an attachment from an email of unknown provenance. Don’t even download a picture or attachment from a friend, unless you’ve discussed it first and have a guarantee it’s clean. Third, invest in one of the many anti-malware programs available.

AVG-Antivirus-Free-EditionThe top security programs follow:

Bit Defender Antivirus Free: Free from Google Play. Very simple yet effective. Install, run the app once, and it just sits there waiting for more threats. It’s a very light program so it’s ideal for older or simpler devices.

TrustGo’s Antivirus and Mobile Security: Free from Google Play. More simple than many others, this app gives you anti-malware protection as well as browsing protection and not much else.

AVG AntiVirus Security: This well known app, which comes included with many new phones, has a free version with basic protection; a $3.99 a month version with extended capabilities, or a yearly fee version which will set you back $14.99. Really, all you need is the free version, you can find other free apps that perform the functions the paid version provides.

Dozens more are available to choose from, but these three are the top-rated at Google Play by users and experts alike.

What you should take away from this article is that the web is infested with malicious wildlife, which can brick your phone, run up your monthly bill by sending out hundreds of SMS messages, or, worse, allow hackers access to your private financial data such as credit card numbers, Social Security numbers and other crucial data.

Android is targeted more than Apple because of two reasons: it is the most widely used phone operating system and its source code is open, that is, anybody can get hold of the OS and look for new ways to exploit vulnerabilities.

But the growth in sophistication and sheer number of malware variants is alarming. Don’t think that just because you’ve activated an antivirus program that you’re safe. Just follow the list of don’ts provided above and you’ll most likely be safe. I say most likely because Google audited its Play store and found dozens of virus ridden apps as well as other malware.

Practice safe browsing

Install as few apps as are necessary, keep an eye out for suspicious behavior by new apps, and do not download from third party sources, save for the exceptions noted above. If you’re really worried, you can go into your phones settings, go into security, and unchecked the box that allows you to install apps from unknown sources.

You can also check the box labeled Verify Apps, which will disallow or warn you before installation of apps that may cause harm.

You can follow all these guidelines to the letter, and still find you’ve been infected. Then you have no choice but to back up and restore your phone to its factory settings. Admittedly, I’ve played fast and loose with safe mobile practices, and I’ve paid the price for it. Don’t let this happen to you.

Avoid dodgy websites, don’t download from unknown sources, and keep your fingers crossed at all times. The web is full of nasty beasties just waiting for you to let your guard down. And accept the fact that no matter how cautious you are, you might still pick up an infection.

You can minimize your risks. You can’t eliminate them entirely.