How would you feel if your smartphone is secretly generating profit for cybercriminals without your knowledge? These unsolicited activities are not only security and privacy risks, they can impact your smartphone's performance as well.
Researchers from eZanga used the company's Anura ad fraud protection software to detect ad click attempts from hundreds of Android apps that run hidden adware to generate fraudulent revenue.
Back in June, the researchers found 317 apps in the Google Play store that were created using a software development kit (SDK) that hides ad fraud code. Another 1,300 malicious apps were also found in third-party app stores.
The infected apps, which range from free live wallpaper apps to free camera apps, automatically run scripts in the background to mimic human clicks and generate page views, all without the user's permission.
This essentially turns an infected phone into an ad bot that's under its developer's beck and call.
eZanga said that these ad fraud apps could have garnered between 4.1 to 14.2 million installs so far. With these kinds of numbers, millions of Android phones may have been recruited to this army of ad fraud bots without their owner's knowledge.
The scheme was first uncovered in June when Anura isolated two dubious wallpaper apps named Lovely Rose and Oriental Beauty and tested them for questionable behavior. Within a 24-hour period, the tests of Android phones with these apps installed were found to request a total of 3,061 ads and 169 successful clicks, all this while the phones were in sleep mode.
These fake ad clicks and unsolicited activity can cost the industry a whopping $6.5 billion in lost advertising revenue.
The researchers also identified Google Play Store app developers who are releasing multiple apps displaying the same dubious characteristics.
Included in this list of developers are names like Attunable, Classywall, Firamo, FlameryHot, NeonApp, Goopolo, Litvinka Co, Livelypapir, Tuneatpa Personalization, Waterflo, X Soft, and Zheka.
Thankfully, most of the apps in were removed from the Google Play Store shortly after eZanga's research findings were released. However, about 6,000 more apps were still seen floating around third-party app stores tainted with a tweaked version of the ad fraud malware.
Is your Android phone secretly an ad bot?
Since ad fraud malware lurks in the background to do its shady deed, here are tell-tale signs that your phone may be infected.
First, check for data spikes. Adware infected phones usually perform unsolicited clicks in the background to generate profit for cybercriminals. All of these stealthy tactics use up bandwidth and the unauthorized data they consume should be fairly easy to spot.
Second, battery drain. As you can imagine, all this unauthorized background activity not only takes a toll on your data usage, it can impact your battery life, as well. Since your phone is still busy clicking ads to generate page views in the background even while it's idle, it can never be really at rest.
Aside from adware, there are different kinds of malware that can infect your Android phone. Click here to read more about ways on how to detect a virus on your Android phone.
How to protect yourself from ad fraud malware
You can't be too careful with apps nowadays. As you can see, your phone can be turned into a fraudulent ad revenue bot without your knowledge. Follow these basic tips to keep the cybercriminals at bay:
- Opt in to Google Play Protect - It is designed to work in the background, protecting users from malicious apps in real time. Click here to learn more about it and how to opt in.
- Only download apps from the Google Play Store - Even though some malicious apps make it into the Play Store, it does have a more thorough screening process. This cuts down on the chances a malicious app makes it in. Third-party app stores don't have these screening processes.
- Keep "unknown sources" disabled while not using it.
- Make sure your gadget is updated with the most recent Android security update.
- Check the app's developer - Verifying the name of the app developer is important. Copycat apps will have a different developer's name than the actual one. Before downloading an app, do a Google search to find the original developer.
- Reviews - Most of the popular apps will have reviews by other users in the app store. You can sometimes find reviews by experts online. These are helpful at pointing out malicious or faulty apps. If you find a review warning the app is malicious, do NOT download it.