Some 12 million smartphones have mobile apps that secretly run a barrage of hidden advertisements in the background — roughly 700 per hour — that gobble up to 2GB of data per day and shorten battery life in its host device.
Advertisers lose even more: an estimated $1 billion this year in bogus commissions paid to fraudsters for simulated clicks of those ads in “what they believe to be real consumers viewing their ads,” says David Sendroff of Forensiq, an advertising fraud protection firm. “This money is lost because the ads they paid for are never actually seen.”
Calling this new ruse “mobile device hijacking,” Sendroff tells the Fraud Watch Network that at least 5,000 apps are purposely developed to scam this way. Most are obscure games — including “Waxing Eyebrows,” “Pet Dentist,” “Vampire Doctor,” “Bounce the Cat” and “Air Fighting 3D” — but also include utility apps ranging from flashlights to breastfeeding trackers.
The good news: No popular games, such as Angry Birds, were implicated in Forensiq’s study, which analyzed 16 billion views and tests on its own pool of smartphones.
Once installed, these apps constantly run — even when not used — to stealthily run up to 16,000 ads to generate inflated but false views on industry-used ad-tracking networks. Both Androids and iOS phones are vulnerable. Users generally don’t see these ads running, or may watch one ad while using the app as it or others hidden simultaneously play. And it all goes undetected by current protection software, says Sendroff.
His advice to protect your phone (and data plan):
* Read reviews before installing apps. Huge red flags include complaints of excessive data usage, drained battery life and/or slower device performance.
* Stick with the popular. There’s no indication that any well-known app or those from trusted vendors are hijacking your phone to run invisible ads.
* Beware of suspicious permissions. “Permissions like the ability to run at startup and keeping the phone from sleeping are rarely needed by apps to perform their intended function,” notes Sendroff.
* Disable Internet access to the app in its setting. It’s not needed for most games and prevents ads from being displayed.
* Uninstall apps you don’t use. “We believe that a lot of the fraudulent traffic is coming from users who installed apps and forgot they are still present on their phone or tablet.” Industry stats suggest that after being installed, 1 in 4 apps are never used.
For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and gain access to a network of experts, law enforcement and people in your community who will keep you up to date on the latest scams in your area.
Photo: Onur Döngel/iStock
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