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Mobile Phone Security; Android and Apple

Mobile Phones. We all have them now, don't we? Well, maybe not quite everyone - yet. Most, if not all who do have one will either be a devoted Apple or Android user; rarely do users mix or switch allegiance. Microsoft phones are no longer made or sold, but there are no doubt some still around. These devices are now the dominant device for internet access, certainly for most people, but does that mean that they are safe? Well, mostly, yes, but not completely, nothing ever is. Most of the time, you can access the internet via your mobile phone without any issues, but, precisely because they are small, light and mobile and contain or have access to a lot of our most important information, you should be aware of the dangers and take extra care about how you access the internet using them.
Mobile Phone But first, you need to keep your mobile device safe - physically. This means protecting it with some sort of case, preferably one that covers the screen, if you are OK with using one of those, as the screen is very fragile and is your interface with the device, so it is of the utmost importance! A screen protector is a very good idea, either a plastic film type, or a toughened glass type, whichever you prefer. Neither is perfect or can prevent your damage to your screen in all cercumstances, but both are better than nothing. Secondly, think about how you carry your device; make sure it is out of sight and not wasy for someone to grab or take from your pocket - phones are one of the pick-pockets favourites nowadays!
If you are using your phone while out and about, make sure you have a good hold of it, are shading it from other people's view - the whole phone, not just the screen - and be aware of other people around you, especially anyone on a bike, scooter (any type), or motorbike, who can appear and grab your phone in a flash - especially bikes and battery scooters and skateboards ('hover boards') etc., as they are fast and virtually silent. The favourites seem to be skooters, 'two-up', where the rider gets really close and the passenger grabs your phone. The same goes at home or in the car, don't leave the phone in view, or have your phone near an open window! As well as keeping your phone physically safe, you also need to know how to keep your data safe it it is stolen or lost. That is what we willcover next:
Even when you're NOT online - or even using your phone - security should still be your No.1 priority! If someone was to steal your phone, they may not be able to get into your accounts and apps. etc., provided you have a screen password/PIN/etc. - which you most certainly SHOULD have - but, they can still take your SIM out and put it into one of their own phones and access some of your accounts and data this way. By doing this, can can install the apps necessary to access your bank acconuts and get request a new password and a text confirmation to do so. To protect yourself, you need to change the security code PIN on your SIM. Yes, you will have one, most likely the one set by your network operator. This will likely be 0000, 1234, or similar. Find out what it is (by trial and error, by 'goolging' it, or by contacting them and then CHANGE it to something that is NOT the same as your screen/bank/etc. PIN! Make sure it is something that you can remember though! You will only need to use this if you remove and refit your SIM, or move it to another phone.
Also, you need to be aware that it is possible for someone else to 'hijack' your phone number. How can they do that? Easy, by getting enough information about you to get a new SIM with your number and get it sent to a different address - or intercept it at your address. This is not as difficult as you might think, so keep your personal information safe! This means not giving away any personal information to anyone unless you absolutely have to. For instance, never tell anyone your birth day/date, or use it on sites like Facebook etc. ONLY use it where you HAVE to, like bank accounts and official sites (HMRC, NHS, etc.), where you have to use accurate information. For any other site, use a fake date of birth (one you can remember, obviously) and possibly a fake name too!
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So, how would you know if your number has been hijacked? Firstly, you should get a message from your service provider to let you know that you have requested a change of address (if this is what someone else has done). If this happens, call them immediately and tell them it was not you and you have NOT changed address and make sure they have not already dispatched a new SIM. However, this might not happen and the first thing you might know about it is that you suddenly have no service/signal on your phone. If this happens, check that the service status in your area and that there are no transmitter or other problems causing this. You can check online using your phone (on WiFi), a laptop, or someone elses device, but check quickly, as if there are no service problems in your area, you again need to contact your service provier immediately to find out what the problem is and rectify it before anyone has the chance to access your information and accounts. If you find that someone else has changed your address and/or requested a new SIM, get this sorted out with your supplier, then quickly call and suspend your credit and debit cards and bank accounts and request new cards. Don't assume that these are safe if a new SIM has been requested but not yet sent, get your accounts suspended and request new cards anyway! Yes, it's inconvenient, but the banks will not care and it's a LOT more convenient than risking losing lots of money from your bank acounts!
Before using any websites or apps, you need to keep your operating system (iOS, Android, etc.), Apps and Internet Security Software (yes, you need this on your phone too!) up to date, just the same as for any other device. You also need to practice 'Safe Internetting' and no, this is not what you get from keeping your mobile phone in a rubber case! These issues are all covered elsewhere on our website, so we're not going to re-iterate it all here. Generally, what applies to one device will apply and work on a mobile device, though the actual Hardware, OS, Apps and Software will be specific, not only to what mobile device(s) you have (Phone, Tablet, etc.), but also to your specific Platform (another name for your Operating System, or 'OS'), and to the specific Make, Model and Version/Issue/Generation of your device.
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Connecting to the internet can be done in various ways. The options are;
  • Mobile Data, via your mobile phone Service Provider.
  • Wi-Fi, at home, or a known safe source, like at a friend's house.
  • Wi-Fi, outside, from your service provider, or provided by a café, shop, airport, etc..
  • Local 'Hot Spot' Wi-Fi, shared from another mobile device.
Now, there are many things to consider for all of these options, so we'll take them in turn.

1. Direct Mobile Data on your handset, via your Service Provider. This means using some of your 'data allowance' from whichever company you pay for your mobile phone and/or service, wherever you have a good enough data signal. Many people have a combined phone and service on a contract with their provider, which pays for both the handset itself (iPhone, Android Phone, or whatever) and your service and connection, which will include a certain number of minutes for phone calls, number of text messages and an amount of data, measured in GigaBytes (GB), such as 4GB, 8GB, 20GB, 100GB per month, or whatever your plan includes.
Most plans nowadays, whether for a handset or SIM only (where you just pay for your connection and a certain number of minutes phone calls, texts and data allowance, allocated to the SIM inserted into a phone that you have bought yourself) come with unlimited phone calls and text messages. Where they differ greatly is in the amount of data you can use, plus some other services, like MMSs (Multimedia Messaging Service: sending photo/video messages). Some data allowances are as low as 500 MegaBytes (MB), which is fine for people who rarely, if ever, need or want to use the internet on the move, up to unlimited plans, which (potentially) allow you to access the internet as much as you want.
Be careful though, before signing up to any plan which claims to let you use a lot, or unlimited data, especially if it locks you in for any period more than one month, as there can be hidden (often called 'Fair Use') limitations. You also have the option of signing for a one month (so-called 'zero months' contract - but usually one month's notice to leave), 6 months, one year, or 18 months or more. Make sure the service is right for you before signing up to a long contract, especially if you might move house in that time, as you can't guarantee that the same level of reception will be available somewhere else and you may not be able to cancel - though if you move and end up with no useable signal, that IS a valid and good reason for being able cancel your contact early!
Mobile Phone by a window A common limitation is use of data when travelling abroad. Some plans still include the use of data while travelling abroad (called data roaming) to certain countries - though not so many nowadays for UK residents since 'Brexit' - but this is almost always limited to the phone or device that the SIM is physically installed in. This if fine for most people, but do not think that you can take a tablet or laptop with you and share your connection with that using a Local Hot-Spot, set up on your phone. That is generally NOT allowed. Because of 'Brexit', limitations and charges on phone calls and texts are also common now, so check all of this before you take out your contract - and especially before you travel!
Some companies don't even allow this while you are at home in the UK (or whichever is your home country), or will impose a limit on how much data can be used via a Hotspot, such as 'unlimited' data on your phone, but only 30GB via a 'HotSpot' on your device: Check for 'Unlimited Hotspot' in your terms and conditions, or you may well hit problems or face high charges when you need this access most! Direct Mobile Data is, however, probably as safe as connecting to the internet gets using a mobile phone, assuming everything else being equal and, given the low cost plans available nowadays, shouldn't be a limitation for most people on security grounds.
2. Wi-Fi is, or should be, simple and fairly safe for most people nowadays, especially at home. With modern broadband internet and decent connection speeds, an always on instant connection is available for the vast majority of people - in cities at least. If you live in the country, you may not be so lucky. Wi-Fi is only as safe as the setup on your router though, so make sure you read the section on that and, if you are using Wi-Fi at a friend's house, you might want to ask about their security too. After all, if they have given you access, who else have they given their password to?

3. Using Wi-Fi while out and about can be helpful if you have a poor phone signal, or not much data allowance, but you need to use extreme caution here, especially if you are using 'free' Wi-Fi. If you are using free Wi-Fi, whatever you do, do NOT access Internet Banking, or anything else that involves paying for something, or logging into any account of yours that holds ANY sensitive data of yours, or shares a login or password of an account that does! You should also be cautious about doing any of this using ANY other public Wi-Fi. By this, I mean ONLY do this if you ABSOLUTELY NEED to do this NOW! If not, then don't, wait until you have secure private Wi-Fi at home, or personal data and a good phone signal available.

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4. Wi-Fi from a shared device CAN be very safe, but it depends on many of the same criteria as for Home Wi-Fi. What the device is you're sharing from, how it's set up, what security software and app are installed on it, who it belongs to and who also is sharing the connection! If it's your own phone, then you are in control and it should be pretty safe. However, all devices are open to being compromised and of course, you are always open to fake or unsafe websites and to email or messaging scams. So, read the page about being Web Aware and make sure you are doing everything you can keep safe online.

However, one of the best ways to make any of these connections - or a broadband connection - safe (or at least a lot safer) is to use a Vitual Private Network (VPN). This is a combination of software you install and a service which connects you to the internet via a 'safe' server, hence giving you a 'virtual' private network connection. There are some free VPNs and they can be good for certain people and uses, but there are generally severe restriction on them, such as very limited data limits, low bandwidth (speed), availability in or from certain countries or regions, and often obtrusive ads. Far better to go for one of the paid for services, which are also more likely to be even safer still. Prices vary a lot and it may seem like an unnecessary expense, but, if you use your connection for important business, or simply for internet banking etc., it could just turn out to be the best decision you ever make! See the list below for some of the better well-known services, though there are many, many more.
  • CyberGhost
  • ExpressVPN
  • IPVanish
  • NordVPN
  • Norton Secure VPN
  • Private Internet Access VPN
  • ProtonVPN
  • Surfshark
  • TorGuard VPN
  • TunnelBear VPN
There are also other options, like using a seperate Browser that has a built-in VPN, or VPN option, like Opera or Tor, which has the advantage of allowing you to use your usual Browser for particular sites that might not allow the use of a VPN, as they exclude access to users where they cannot tell their location (country), such as some banks etc. Tor is very useful for keeping your identity secret, but it is very slow, especially for video, as it uses discrete 'Bridges' to connect to sites, which can slow things to a crawl. It can also be said to alert sites to the fact that you are attempting to hide you identity and therefore by default, you must be a criminal!
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Remember though, that a VPN only makes the connection safer, you still have to keep aware and practice safe activity as usual; fraudulent activity can still take place over a safe connection, as it can over https - it won't help you one bit if you get scammed and personal information is safely transferred to a scammer's computer, or your money is safely transferred to a scammer's bank account!
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This page was last updated on: 02 April 2023
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