Apps make our electronic devices fun and functional, but they also can be easy entry points for digital criminals who want to pirate your data and seize control of your accounts and devices. Before you give an app permission to enter your phone and your life, make sure you know how to spot and avoid malicious ones.
Be extra-careful on Android devices. Apple’s iOS is a much more secure platform than Android’s Google Play, with far fewer malicious apps thanks to Apple’s strict vetting process—done before an app is even posted in its App Store. Sometimes, however, malicious apps still can slip through the cracks. Example: Apple recently identified 17 fairly obscure apps that users should delete because they might be dangerous. On the other hand, a security expert recently audited Android’s Google Play and found 172 harmful apps that users had downloaded an astonishing 335 million times—exposing themselves to attacks that could make them vulnerable to fraud and identity theft.
Avoid apps that have had few downloads. When it comes to apps, there is safety in numbers—the good ones often have thousands or tens of thousands (or more!) of downloads. Some developers create apps to look very similar to popular and widely trusted apps, and these imposters often will show up next to the real apps in the search results. If you’re downloading an app from Disney, for example, and it has only a few dozen or a few hundred downloads, that’s a red flag.
Read bad reviews first. Same as with online shopping, reviews give us some insight when browsing for apps—but it’s easy enough for crooks to flood their listings with good reviews. The one-star reviews, however, are always real. Scroll the bad reviews of any apps you’re considering downloading and look for a pattern of users mentioning malware or hacking.
Never download from a third-party app outside of the App Store or Google Play. If you’re not sure if an app is authentic, search for it on the app store and use the link it provides to direct you to the genuine app in Google Play or the App Store.