How To Know If Someone Is Tracking Your Android Phone: 7 Signs To Look Out For
BY AARON GREENBAUM/MAY 11, 2023 5:22 PM EST
Knowledge is power. That is more true today than ever before. With a little bit of information, anyone can learn almost anything about anyone. If a particularly malicious hacker obtains the right (or wrong) information, they can use it to steal your privacy, credit card number, or even identity. To make matters worse, obtaining this data is shockingly easy due to smartphones.
Thanks to advances in technology, lowering prices, and ever-increasing universal uses, virtually everyone owns a smartphone. Sure, you can utilize it as just a phone, but they are also entertainment centers, handheld GPS devices, and treasure troves for hackers. Apps that let users keep track of bank statements, order products off Amazon, and even talk to friends and family are prime targets. All it takes is one tiny hole to open your phone to spyware and other malicious tracking methods.
Here are some signs that your phone might be compromised. Warning: This article is not intended as a guide to help self-diagnose your phone. If you think your phone is being tracked, bring it to your local repair center. Only use this list as a guideline of possible symptoms to watch for.
Unknown Apps Populate Your Phone
Let’s start with the most obvious warning sign: apps. Most of the time, apps you download off built-in smartphone storefronts are safe. Sure, you will probably lose hours of your life playing “Pokémon GO” or “Honkai Star Rail,” but you don’t have to worry about viruses from these apps. Not all apps are as safe as these, though.
If you find an app you don’t recognize on your phone, even a seemingly benign one, it might be spyware in disguise. These malicious programs can worm their way onto your smart devices in a myriad of ways. One of the most common methods is by piggybacking onto other apps and installing themselves as an unintentional package deal. Normally, you can avoid this by only installing programs verified by your Android storefront, but that isn’t a foolproof solution. In fact, sometimes malware programs disguise themselves as legitimate apps and trick users into installing them. According to Bleeping Computer, this worst-case scenario occurred as recently as July 2022 and compromised over 10 million phones.
Admittedly, some phones ship with pre-packaged apps already installed, and many of these programs are impossible to uninstall. Pay attention to what apps are pre-installed on any new phone you buy since you can rule those out. Otherwise, if you find an unknown app, that should be your sign to seek out an expert. Let them figure out if the program is actually spyware or just a false positive.
Weird Text Messages
Everyone receives weird text messages every now and then. Perhaps you’ve received a text or two from someone asking about a dating app profile you don’t own, but even if you have, those were just texts from scammers trying to catfish you. They probably pulled your phone number out of a hat and are by no means spying on your phone. However, not every weird text message is as benign or hilariously sad.
While it’s generally a wise practice to ignore and/or delete texts from numbers you don’t recognize, a rare few individuals might receive texts that consist of a random string of letters, numbers, and other symbols. These could be another phishing attempt, or they could also be a sign that spyware is on your phone, and the seemingly random letters and numbers aren’t random but instructions for tracking programs.
If you receive these messages once, it’s probably nothing to worry about. But if you receive them more than once, you should bring your phone in for repair and/or virus removal, just to be safe.
Your Phone Runs Slow and Hot
Nothing lasts forever, especially electronic devices. Eventually, computers and smartphones slow down, but usually, there’s a pattern to these diminishing behaviors. When a phone slows down in a way that defies these patterns, spyware might be the cause.
In order to effectively track your phone and its activity, spyware constantly runs in the background, which eats up resources usually reserved for other apps and services, thus slowing down your phone. Moreover, because of the constant strain spyware puts on your phone’s CPU, these programs make your phone heat up as the processor struggles to keep everything running. Since the energy for these spying activities has to come from somewhere, your battery suffers as a result. Not only do viruses steal your personal information, but they also steal your phone’s milliamps, too.
We need to stress that a slow, hot phone is not necessarily proof of spyware. Maybe your phone is old; maybe phone or app settings are hamstringing performance, or maybe software or hardware issues are to blame. As for a phone’s low battery life, perhaps built-in features are siphoning energy, or perhaps you should stop charging your battery to 100%. But if your phone is hot to the touch while idling, and it processes even the simplest of requests at a glacial pace, you should bring it to a repair center as a precaution. Even if spyware isn’t to blame, you should get the issue fixed regardless.
Unusual Phone Activity
Since smartphones connect to a variety of services while also serving as text and calling devices, they alert users of important notifications. These notices can be annoying when you’re trying to sleep or watch a movie, but at least they keep you apprised of important developments. However, what happens when a phone acts like a notification is popping up when none is? Either your smartphone is haunted or, more likely, it’s got a virus.
Phone notifications come in a variety of forms, but they are usually heralded with the screen lighting up momentarily, a ping sound, and/or vibration. If that happens without any associated notifications, your phone could be infected with spyware that is creating these false-positive alerts. However, benign apps such as Edge Panels have been known to act up and cause these issues as well.
Not all spyware-caused unusual phone activity is limited to phantom notifications. Sometimes phones can slow down or even restart without warning, but those could easily be the result of the phone installing updates. If it happens with regular consistency, though, you might want to get your phone checked.
Extra Data Usage
Every smartphone comes with a data plan. It lets you surf the web, navigate via GPS, and send photographs. The more information your phone requests or sends, the more data it uses. This rule applies to many programs and services on your phone, including those you never installed.
The main purpose of spyware is to, well, spy on your phone and collect data, but what does it do with that data? Forward the info as packets to the person who created the spyware. The more the spyware gathers, the more info it uploads, which eats up more and more of your data plans. Depending on your plan, you could either get overcharged for data usage because spyware spent the rest uploading personal info, or your data speeds could get throttled. Leave it to a virus to steal your data and force you to pay for its activities.
If you run out of data far too quickly and are confident you aren’t actually using that much, check which apps are using up your data. Once you do, you can probably determine whether your phone is infected with spyware or if you accidentally left “Pokémon GO” running in the background.
Phone Records Don’t Match
Spyware tends to work discreetly in the background; if it doesn’t show its hand with diminished battery life and reduced phone performance, you might never know someone is spying on you. However, sometimes viruses leave tracks that you can follow if you know where to look.
Malware on smartphones generally comes in two varieties: the kind that records your activities and the kind that hijacks your apps. The former can snap photos and videos of your texts and of websites you’ve visited — or of you through your smartphone’s camera — while the latter can visit websites without you realizing it. However, both forms of spyware still have to save their ill-gotten info somewhere, and since your phone’s memory is the closest storage device, it’s usually the virus’ first choice. If you see screenshots or videos you don’t remember taking, especially screenshots and videos of potentially sensitive info such as texts and credit card numbers, or if your browser history is full of websites you don’t remember visiting, you probably have a tracking virus.
If you are lucky, you could identify these viruses before they do any damage. For instance, when you turn on your smartphone’s camera or microphone, a little light illuminates at the top of the screen. If you see that light but didn’t turn on your camera or microphone, take your smart device to a phone store immediately.
Weird Noises During Calls
Back in the old days, in order to listen in on phone conversations, you had to physically attach or plant listening devices into phones or phone lines, but that isn’t possible with smartphones. Still, disreputable people can bug smartphones and record conversations if they so choose, but the recording software is a little more clumsy.
Hypothetically, spyware designed to record your voice could be hiding on your phone, and you might never realize it, at least until you actually call someone. People who have discovered wiretapping software on their smartphones reported that their calls were constantly disrupted by consistent beeps, echoes, and white noise.
Now before you go and assume that any of these sounds are the product of recording spyware, keep in mind that they are easily explained away with bad reception. Maybe you’re in a lousy spot to make a call, or maybe the person you’re talking to is. The secret to determining if your smartphone has been bugged is consistency. If beeps, white noise, and echoes plague every phone call you make — and we mean literally every call — then your phone is probably bugged. Either that or your service provider doesn’t cover your area as much as you thought.