Can Smart Phones Get Viruses?

by Tim Chesonis | Last Updated:  April 20, 2020

You use your smartphone every day and depend on it for so many things, and while you may hear a lot about computer viruses, have you ever wondered whether your smart phone could actually get a virus?

Smartphones can get viruses, and there are appropriate measures you can take right now to prevent the loss of data, privacy and the time it may take to recover, should you smartphone become infected.

Why Don’t People Talk about Viruses on Smartphones?

The funny thing is that you hear about viruses on computers all the time, but not so much on Smartphones.  That may seem odd given the number of Smartphones in the world today – about 3.4 billion, with about 45% of the population using them according to Statista.com

Do viruses really not infect Smartphones as often as computers?  The truth is that virus infections really don’t occur on Smartphones as often as they do on computers, largely due to the way one downloads apps on your phone versus how one installs programs on the computer.  It also has a lot to do with where and how one installs apps on their cell phone, but more on that in a minute.

How can a Virus Affect Me?

A virus in the computer world is a program that replicates itself by attaching to another program.  Hackers will maliciously use this to hijack your cell phone to gain access to your personal information, such as your credit cards, contact list, and may even try to blackmail you into paying them to remove their malicious code. 

Can a Virus Ever get Through the App Marketplace?

Even with security checks on your app marketplace, sometimes a virus can get through.  This is not specific to a single app marketplace.  It could happen anywhere.  When it does happen, and the marketplace is notified, the issue is typically resolved quickly.  The problem app will be removed from the marketplace immediately.  In this way, once again, the app marketplace is working to protect additional would be users.

How Can an App Gain Access to my Personal Information?

Because your smartphone is designed with a program structure that keeps apps separate from the main operating system, your smartphone does offer some protection even if you inadvertently get a virus-ridden app.  This separation of the app from the operating system means that apps can’t gain access to the operating system and make undesired changes throughout your phone.  You will lose this protection, however, if you have chosen to jailbreak or root your device.  When you jailbreak or root your phone, you access the inner functioning of your phone.  This allows you to install programs that have access to the operating system, and install apps whose code has not been approved.  This will lower the inherent security of your smartphone.

Are there Other Ways for my Smartphone to get a Virus?

Apps are not the only means for your smartphone to get infected with a virus.  Hackers can take advantage of things like the vulnerabilities of an operating system that is not updated to the current version, or browsers that are designed to target your phone.  They could also try to access information through security weaknesses in public Wi-Fi networks, or when you connect your phone to another device. 

As with computers, you also want to be aware of the possibility of a threat coming from a fake email with an infected attachment, or a random text message from an unknown contact that contains a link.  You also always want to be cautious of downloads and links from less reputable websites.

Is there a Difference in Security Between One Smartphone and Another?

Because operating systems are developed differently, you will find differences in the security level of different smartphones. 

Android Security

Android phones are thought to provide the least secure mobile operating system.  The reason for this is that the operating system for Android uses what is called open source code.  That allows for the code behind it to be available for anyone to look at.  This will make it easier for a programmer to write malicious programming that might be used to access personal information like your contacts, or attempt remote control of your device.

IPhone Security

IPhones are generally more immune to viruses, because the operating system (iOS) is a closed system.  It is more difficult for a hacker to create malware since they cannot access the operating system code.  That does not mean that your iPhone is immune.  There are enough iPhones out there to still make them a tempting target for a would-be malicious programmer. 

Windows Phone and BlackBerry Security

While the operating systems of the Windows Phone and BlackBerry may not be fully secure, (and are rarely used given that they are no longer produced), they do have the advantage of having a much smaller percentage of the market share.  This means that they are not as attractive as targets for malicious programmers.  They do also run on closed operating systems, making them a more difficult target than the Android operating system.

How do I Protect my Smartphone?

Your level of diligence in how you use your phone and in what you download is actually your best protection.  Make sure that your operating system is kept up to date.  Always download apps from the app marketplace recommended for your smartphone.  Never click on links in emails or text messages if you are unsure of the sender or if the message sounds questionable in any way.   Then, take the next steps to protect yourself. 

Protect Yourself by Only Downloading from Reputable Sources

Be careful about what apps you download, paying attention to where you are downloading from, what other people have said about the app, and being cautious of what permissions you give to the app.  Start with protecting yourself before you download an app. 

A little bit of research can yield big dividends.  Look at whether the app is popular.  Look at how many times the app has been downloaded.  If it has been used thousands, or even millions of times, it is likely sound.  Look a little further to check the app’s reviews.  Are the reviews positive and do they look legitimate?  Be aware that hackers sometimes post short, fake reviews just to encourage people to download.  Finally, you can check what other apps the developer has created.  If it is from a reputable source, you are likely to find additional apps that the same developer has created. 

When you do download an app, you will still want to exercise caution in using it.  Beware of updates that you are requested to perform that are communicated as “urgent.”  Again, do some research before performing the update.  See if other users have completed the update and if they have been satisfied with it.

When you are using the app, you also want to pay attention to its performance.  If you are seeing poor quality when using it, you may want to further evaluate its merit, or potential for introducing a virus.  Pay attention if it looks less than professional.  Look for things like spelling mistakes, poorly reproduced logos or awkward interfaces.  These things could point to a fake app that has the potential to present a threat to your phone.

The best way to protect your Android smartphone is to be cautious about what permissions an app is requesting.  The access should reflect the nature of the app.  For example, if you are downloading a game, and it asks for permission to access your contacts, it should be questioned. 

The best way to protect your iPhone is to read app reviews before downloading new apps.  Make sure that others have not run into problems with the app before you put it on your phone.  You can also help protect your phone by not giving into your geeky friend who suggests that you jailbreak it. 

Download an Antivirus App

If you are not satisfied with trusting the app marketplaces and your own personal diligence, you can take additional steps to try to safeguard your phone.  There are various antivirus apps out there, and this article is not an attempt to promote or evaluate which one might be best for you.   We will offer some insight into possible security apps for you to research for your phone, but choosing this path will be a personal decision based on your particular phone, security concerns, and budget.

Android Security Apps

Generally, because Android devices have a higher likelihood of malware and virus attack, it is recommended that an antivirus app be used.  Here are some possibilities for you to consider (many of which you may recognize from the PC world):  TotalAV, McAfee, Norton, AVG, and Avast.  Note, this is not a comprehensive list, but these are some of the popular ones out there.  While a security app is not a 100% guarantee that you will never get a virus on your phone, it is an extra layer of protection beyond your own personal diligence, and can certainly add some peace of mind. 

iPhone Security Apps

Here are some popular ones that you may want to research for your iPhone:  Avira Mobile Security, Lookout, McAffee Mobile Security, Trend Micro, and F-Secure SAFE.  It is important to realize, however, that in the same way that it is more difficult for an infected app to contaminate your iPhone, due to the closed operating system that we mentioned earlier, any of the mobile security apps that we have listed will also have limitations as compared to how an anti-virus program may run on your computer. 

The security app will only have access to what you allow it to have access to.  It will not be able to access every potential threat on your iPhone.  It is as if the app runs in isolation, unable to see many of the things that you would want it to catch.  For this reason, many experts will recommend that simply performing regular iOS updates will offer the best protection to your iPhone.  While this may be true when it comes to various apps that you download, you still may find it helpful to use a mobile security app to help protect against phishing and to provide things like data breach alerts.

Keep Backups Of Your Phone’s Information

As one more precaution to protect yourself, just as you would with your computer files, it is a good idea to keep a backup of the information on your phone, so that you can restore it if you need to when all else fails. 

Android Back Ups

On your Android phone, there is a “Backup & Reset” option in your “Settings” menu.  Within that option, you will want to make sure that “Back up my data” is enabled.  That will store your app data, Wi-Fi passwords and other settings.  If you also click the box for “Automatic restore,” it will restore backed up settings and data when you reinstall an app. 

For additional information backup on Android, go to “Settings” and select the “Accounts & Sync” menu, and select “Google.”  Choose your Google account and enable any of the items in the list that you want to ensure are backed up.  This will allow things like your contacts, calendar, Gmail, Chrome and Google Drive information to be saved on Google’s servers for you to access from any device when you are logged into your Google account. 

For photos and videos that you want backed up from your phone, the easiest solution is using Google Photos.  These can be automatically backed up the the Google Photos app.  When you launch Photos, go to the three dots in the upper right corner and choose “Auto-Backup” by sliding the toggle button to “On.”

iPhone Back Ups

In order to back up information from your iPhone, go to the “Settings” and select the menu where your name is in order to access iCloud settings. Make sure that the “iCloud Backup” is turned on. The iPhone will automatically back up to iCloud daily when your phone is connected to power, locked and on WiFi.  If needed, you can select “Back Up Now” to perform a manual back up.

When you go back out to the iCloud area in your settings, you can select which apps are using iCloud.  Additionally, iCloud will store device settings, Apple Watch backups, Home screen and app organization, ringtones, and purchase history from Apple services. 

Closing Thoughts

While smartphone viruses may be less common than computer viruses, they can happen.  You can protect yourself, however, with a few simple precautions.  Being careful to do things like update your operating system and only downloading reputable apps from approved marketplaces will take you far in getting the protection you need.  Adding the extra security of an antivirus app, particularly if you have an Android phone, and making sure data on your phone is backed up, will cover the majority of other concerns that you may encounter. 

Tim loves writing and helping people succeed. He brings a wealth of wisdom and insight from an entrepreneur's perspective, enjoys tinkering with computers, and is a die-hard gadget guy, especially when it comes to cell phones :-) When he's not writing another article, he's probably binge-watching Suites or Breaking Bad, (again). To learn more about Tim, click here.