Are 'stalking apps' hidden on your smartphone?

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The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is cautioning the public about so-called stalking apps.

Jacqueline Connor, an attorney with the FTC's Division of Privacy & Identity Protection, explains in a blog post this week that these apps are a type of software known as spyware that someone adds to your phone without your knowledge.

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Stalking apps enable a third party to use your phone to track you or monitor details of your smartphone activity without your knowledge. Those details can include:

  • Phone conversations
  • Text messages
  • Email
  • Photos
  • Account passwords

Some spyware apps allow a person to use your phone's microphone or camera remotely, monitoring what's happening around the phone even when you're not using it.

Click through for cybersecurity tips:

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Cybersecurity tips

KEEP YOUR PASSWORDS STRONG AND VARIED

If your password is easy for you to remember, then it'll be easy for hackers, too. Try using symbols, numbers and capital letters throughout your passcode. Also, experts suggest you use different passwords for different accounts. 

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EMPLOY TWO-STEP AUTHENTICATION

Add another layer of security by having another code sent to your phone number before you can sign in.

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BEWARE OF PUBLIC WIFI

If you're traveling, verify with the coffee shop or hotel that the wi-fi name is valid -- many cybercriminals set up networks with similar names to popular spots. You can also set up a private VPN that encrypts all of your data that passes through the network.

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COVER YOUR TRACKS

Wipe your hard drive clean before giving away, recycling or throwing out your old laptop or computer.

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DON'T LEAVE YOUR DEVICES UNATTENDED

That's just asking for trouble!

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BEWARE OF MYSTERIOUS URLS IN EMAILS

Don't ever click on URL from an unidentified or sketchy looking email. 

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COVER YOUR WEBCAM 

FBI director James Comey suggests placing a piece of tape over your webcam when you're not using it. If that doesn't convince you, note that Mark Zuckerberg is known to do the same.

KEEP YOUR SOFTWARE UP TO DATE

Hackers target vulnerabilities in software, which are often resolved in software updates, so stop hitting the "ignore" or "remind me later" button!

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It can be hard to tell whether spyware has been installed on your phone, though. No new app icon will be visible and most anti-virus software won't detect the spyware, according to the FTC.

The federal agency notes the following occurrences might suggest spyware has been installed on your phone:

  • A third party has had physical access to your phone.
  • A third party knows a lot of very specific information about you, including your exact locations, the content of conversations you've had, what you've texted and to whom, and what you've searched for online.
  • Your phone's battery drains faster despite no difference in your phone usage.
  • There are unexplained data usage charges on your bill.
  • You have trouble turning off your phone.

The FTC also provides steps you can take if you suspect spyware has been installed on your phone, including contacting law enforcement or the National Domestic Violence Hotline for help.

It's important to note that not all tracking apps are intended for malicious activities like stalking, however.

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Parents can use apps to track their children's location or monitor their children's smartphone communications. Tracking apps also can be used to track someone who is elderly or has Alzheimer's disease.

Are you surprised to learn of stalking apps? Does the news worry you? Let us know below or on Facebook.


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