For many people in the UK, Android is the platform of choice when selecting a mobile phone. There might be several reasons for this, such as its presence on many lower-priced models or its open-source roots that attract many different developers. But one thing that's for sure is Google's robotic operating system is the platform to beat in the smartphone market.
In fact, figures from Kantar Worldpanel ComTech reveal that in the three months to September 2013, almost 60 per cent of smartphone sales in the UK were for the platform. Apple's iOS might have more of a cool factor, but its still lagging behind at just 27 per cent of the market – and the less said about BlackBerry or Windows Phone, the better.
But this ubiquity, combined with the openness of the platform, creates a problem that many consumers will have to deal with – malware. According to a recent study by Cisco, a massive 99 per cent of malicious software designed for mobile phones was aimed at this platform. The popular image of a hacker might be a teenager in a darkened room, hunched over a monitor full of scrolling code, but what it looks like in the real-world is that cutesy cartoon game you just downloaded for your phone may well be riddled with evil intentions.
So what can you do to protect yourself from this onslaught of malware? Doing the digital equivalent of sealing yourself in a bubble to defend against viruses won't be practical, but there are several steps you can take to minimise the risk of having crucial personal info stolen.
Lock the door – get antivirus software
You wouldn't let just anyone into your house without checking who they are first, and you wouldn't go online on your laptop without the protection of antivirus software. So why then, do so many people seem to forget this basic step when it comes to their phone?
Figures from Juniper Research claim more than 80 per cent of smartphones and tablets remained unprotected in 2013 because their owners didn't install security software. It doesn't take long to download an app for this – and there are plenty of free and paid-for options available from the most trusted brands in the business, so why on earth wouldn't you do this?
100% genuine leather – don't download dodgy apps
Unlike Apple's iOS, which tightly regulates what apps you can download through its App Store, Google is more open about what it allows on its platform. While this means there's great variety and anyone can get their app published, how do you know what you're getting is the genuine article?
Like any market, there will always be someone hidden in a virtual alley selling suspiciously cheap designer goods out of a suitcase. But these dodgy dealers are a lot harder to spot online. Pirated software is usually rife with malware and other nasty stuff, while there are also all sorts of fake apps hiding on unregulated marketplaces.
Go to the right stores – use legitimate marketplaces
That's why you should make sure you only use legitimate app stores. Companies such as Google, Samsung and Amazon keep a much closer eye on what they allow to be sold through their online portals, as their reputation depends on it. Therefore, they're much safer than some of the other, Wild West-type third-party markets out there.
It's not foolproof though. CNet highlights the case of a fake BBM app that recently appeared on Google's Play Store, which was downloaded more than 100,000 times before it was removed. To avoid this, make sure you read the reviews, look carefully at what permissions it asks for and be wary of any description that makes too-good-to-be-true promises.
I'm sorry Dave, I can't do that – check your settings
Even if you do decide to go around installing things from random sites without checking, there are steps you can make on your phone that will protect your device from human error. Android contains an option in its settings menu that can prevent malicious apps by verifying them before they are downloaded, or block downloads from sites other than Google Play. This should be turned on by default, but in case you went through a bout of fiddling and switched it off, it's worth double-checking.
It's also important to always get the latest software updates. If you're running Android 4.2 or higher, for instance, this comes with protections that alert you if your device tries to send an SMS message to a premium number. Malware that hijacks your phone and does this automatically is one of the most popular ways for hackers to make money, so shutting this down can protect your bank account, even if a virus does get past your initial defences.