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How to Tell if Your Phone Has Been Hacked | 12 Signs

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With the changing security landscape, smartphones have become more of a curse than a blessing. Mobile phones contain everything from emails to banking details, contacts to images and hence is a popular target of cybercriminals. If your phone is behaving strangely then it’s a possible sign of phone hacking. 

Hackers are becoming increasingly creative and invade your phones to track your online activities, commit identity theft, steal data to sell on the dark web, or blackmail you. Many users believe that using iOS devices will keep them safe from hackers. However, it is a common misconception; both operating systems are equally vulnerable to hacking. While iOS users have been a target of Pegasus hacks, Android users are often targeted with mobile malware that's found in 99% of third-party apps

As mobile devices hold a considerable amount of sensitive and personal information, it's crucial to protect mobile devices from hackers. Considering the importance of mobile phone security, let's explore the signs of phone hacking and how to protect the sensitive data it holds. 

 How to Know If Your Have Been Hacked? 

Unfortunately, phone hacking is rising, leaving users’ sensitive data at risk and also affecting device performance. A study finds that over 60% of cyberattacks worldwide are carried out via mobile devices. Cybercriminals are always refining their methods so they can compromise your phone security for several malicious reasons like:

  • To steal your data for identity theft
  • For blackmailing purpose
  • To infect phones with malware
  • For tracking and spying on the users
  • To get payment information and compromise their accounts

The first and most crucial step to stop phone hacking is to know the signs that determine if hackers have targeted you or not. Below are the 12 key signs that you can look into to confirm the presence of a malicious actor on your phone:

1- Seeing Too Many Pop-Ups Ads

Seeing Too Many Pop-Ups Ads

If you see too many pop-up ads on every website you visit or randomly on your screen, it's a possible sign that adware is infecting your phone. The malware behind these spammy pop-ups often changes the home screen or redirects you to any suspicious websites. In addition, if you see any configuration changes that you didn't personally do, it indicates that your phone has been under attack. 

2- Fake Apps and Software

Fake Apps and Software

Fake apps and software are a sign of possible phone hacking. It is easy for hackers to create fake mobile apps that look identical to the real ones and trick users into downloading them. Statistics reveal that one in five hacks is because of fake apps downloaded on mobile phones. These apps hold malware that secretly works in the background without your knowledge and often monitors your activities and slows down your phone performance.

Using any apps or software downloaded from unofficial resources or a third-party app store means you might be using a fake app. So, be cautious as it’s likely that hackers might be monitoring your phone and activities.

3- Fake Messages 

Fake Messages

Text messages have become a popular tool for hackers to trick users into doing something wrong and entering their phones. Hackers usually send messages to a bulk of phone numbers. These messages pretend to come from a reliable source and encourage people to download code or apps (malicious apps). In addition, they also contain links that often redirect them to a page that the hacker owns and either ask them to make a purchase or download some software. If you receive such messages on your phones, beware, as it is a major red flag of hacking. 

4- High Data Usage

High Data Usage

Unusually high data usage can be a possible sign of phone hacking. The malware, mining apps, or other tracking software runs in the background and consumes much of your mobile data. If you are not using your phone much but have noticed that your monthly data usage has already shot up, check your data usage per app. This way, you can learn about malware secretly transferring files to other parties and immediately delete those apps. 

5- Shorter Battery Life

Shorter Battery Life

It is undeniable that the phone's battery life decreases with time. However, a hacked phone's battery tends to drain faster. An infected device will consume more battery, affecting the entire battery's efficiency. Users cannot detect it once until they find their phones becoming too hot, even when they're not using them. It is because something runs in the background and can even operate when the screen is off. The malware or spyware runs in the background and continuously monitors your activity, using all the battery power. Therefore, if you observe your battery draining more quickly than normal even when your phone usage habits are the same, this is a clear sign of the phone being hacked. 

6- Abnormal Browsing Experience

Abnormal Browsing Experience

When there's a hacker on your phone, they also disrupt your browsing experience. For instance, the browser will redirect you to some odd websites even if you have entered the right website address. In addition, you're bombarded with inappropriate ads. If you experience any such thing, then it's another indication of phone hacking. 

7- Fakes Calls and Text Messages

Fakes Calls and Text Messages

Strange behavior, such as others receiving calls and text messages you haven't made, means your phone is accessed by someone else from a remote location. If your friends and family start complaining about the phone calls and text messages they receive from your number, hackers probably have used the SIM-swapping tactic to sneak into your phone. After getting hold of your contacts, the cyber-crook often aims to target your contacts. Spread the word to all your contacts not to respond to such calls or messages. 

8- Changes Phone Settings

Changes Phone Settings

A skilled hacker can take complete control of your phone and can do anything they want. Like, they can change the phone settings, make calls, or use the phone browser to make some purchases. Since you know your phone better than anyone else, thoroughly check your phone and look out for things that are out of the ordinary. If you notice any unusual activities, such as your Bluetooth connection being on despite not using it or apps having permission to access your phone contacts or image gallery. This indicates that a third party accessed your device to transmit data or install some malicious software. 

9- Strange Activities On Your Online Accounts

Strange Activities On Your Online Accounts

Hackers can easily access your social media accounts, emails, or other apps linked to your device after getting access to your phones. This eventually also results in unusual activities on your accounts that increase the risk of identity theft. If you witness activities like password reset, emails being sent or received, downloaded new apps, or new login accounts on websites and services you never used, it means that someone else is using your phone. 

Make sure to add an extra verification step that boosts account security and leaves no room for hackers to access your data, even if they have your passwords. If you notice any unidentified login locations or email for password reset prompts, then don't respond. 

10- High Billing Charges

High Billing Charges

High billing charges are yet another warning that something is wrong with your phone. Cybercriminals use premium tracking software like keyloggers or spyware to monitor and track your activities. In other words, a high bill could come from the spying apps that secretly run in the background and transfer information to the malicious server. Contact your phone company and ask them to cancel all such subscriptions or services you haven't ever used. 

11- Apps Stop To Function

Apps Stop To Function

It is normal for mobile apps to crash, but if multiple apps are crashing simultaneously, take notice of this sign. The hackers might exploit the apps to install malicious code that can completely help them get remote access to your phone. When malware or other tracking tools are working in the background, it slows down the device's performance and drains its battery. As a result, the apps freeze, and they also often crash.

12- Security Tools Being Disabled

Security Tools Being Disabled

Another sign that your phone has been hacked is that the regular security tools you use have become disabled. For instance, if you notice that the antivirus software you use is disabled, it is a sign of malicious compromise. Hackers disable the security tools so they become unidentified and can smoothly work in the background to steal users' data from their phones. 

What To Do If Your Phone Is Hacked?

If you have been a victim of phone hacking, you need to take immediate action to reduce the dangers of a hacked phone. Here are a few things to do if you have a hacked phone:

Delete Suspicious Apps

Hackers can easily get into your phones through malicious apps. Check all the apps installed on your phone, and if you find any apps you can't recognize, uninstall them. Such apps might get installed on your phone by clicking on a phishing link and connecting to an unsecured Wi-Fi network. Also, delete apps that you have downloaded from a third-party source or other than the official app store.

Run Anti-Malware Software

Scanning your phone with the best anti-malware software can help combat future phone hacking incidents. This software acts as the first line of defense against mobile malware and viruses. It scans the phone for suspicious behavior, potential vulnerabilities, and apps installed from unofficial sources and checks against a known list of compromised apps. If the software detects malware on your phone, it safely removes it and ensures that your phone runs smoothly and securely. 

Reset Your Passwords

Hackers may steal your passwords when your phone gets hacked. Using the same old passwords is risky, so changing your phone password for all accounts connected to your phone is better. Make sure you create strong and unique passwords, and if you feel that creating and remembering too many passwords is something difficult and you can't do, use the best password managers

Reset Your Phone

If the cybercriminals have installed malware or any other tracking software on your device, you can remove it by resetting your phone. However, doing so might cause them to lose all their data, like contacts, photos, notes, and files. That's why it is essential to back up the data on your device. 

Android and iPhone users have to follow different steps to reset their devices. Below is the breakdown of these steps that helps a user in resetting their phone.

Android Users

To remove data from your Android phone, you can reset your phone to factory settings also called hard resets. A factory reset deletes all files stored on your phone, including the entire data, and returns the device to factory settings. The steps for factory reset are as follows:

  1. Open the Settings tab 
  2. Click on General & Backup Reset
  3. Tap on Factory Data Reset
  4. Click on Restart the device
  5. Now click on Erase Everything.

These steps are for Android devices that run on version 5 or above. If you use Android version 5 or below, then here are the steps as below:

  1. Open the Settings tab 
  2. Click on General & Backup Reset
  3. Tap on Factory Data Reset
  4. Click on Reset the Device. 
  5. Tap on Delete All.

If you want to factory reset your Android phone without losing the data, you must back it up and restore it when the reset is complete. Most Android users can also perform a soft reset that doesn't include the risk of losing their data. You can do this by holding power and volume buttons, powering the phone off, and switching it on again. Doing so will shut down all the processes and apps running on your phone and load them from scratch. 

iPhone Users

If malware infects your iPhone and you know about it, you can remove it by resetting your phone. To reset your iPhone to the factory settings, follow the instructions as follows:

  1. Open the Settings tab 
  2. Tap on your Apple ID > Click on iCloud Backup.
  3. Press Backup now, and then go back to the Settings menu. 
  4. Click on General
  5. Tap on Transfer or Reset iPhone 
  6. Select the option that says Erase all content and settings.
  7. Tap on Continue 
  8. Set up your iPhone from the initial screen.
  9.  When Apps and Data come up, tap on Restore from iCloud Backup. 
  10. Sign in to your Apple ID. 

Since you reset the phone after backing up the data, don't worry; you won't lose any data. 

Inform Your Contacts

After targeting you, the hackers will next aim to target your friends, family, and other contacts. Immediately inform your contacts about the situation. Warn them not to reveal your details or respond to any suspicious messages they receive from your side as it is likely a part of the phishing scam. 

Common Tactics Used By Hackers to Hack Someone's Phone?

Besides physically accessing your phones, hackers also use other tactics so they can sneak into your phones. Below are the methods that hackers use to enter your phones:

Phishing Attacks

Phishing attacks are the most common strategy that hackers use to access your phones. You easily give away your sensitive information and data by luring the targets into clicking on a link or tricking them into downloading an attachment. These attacks can take various forms, like text messages, voice calls, emails, and so on. Among all, email phishing is the most prevalent; make sure you learn how to protect yourself from these attacks. 

SIM Swapping

It is a common tactic that hackers use to access your phone and steal data from it. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey 2019 was a victim of this scam. Also, nine people from a hacking group were charged for using this tactic to steal $2.4M in cryptocurrency. In this method, hackers fake your identity, contact your SIM provider, and ask for a SIM card replacement. As soon as the new SIM card is issued, the old one gets deactivated, meaning a hacker can fully control your device and data. 

Bluetooth and Wi-Fi

Using a public Wi-Fi network at a coffee shop, airport, or cafe is a great opportunity for those who want to save their mobile data. While users find free Wi-Fi networks tempting, they are unaware of their dangers. Cybercriminals can easily hack your phones when connected to public Wi-Fi by using various tactics like MITM attacks, setting up a fake Wi-Fi connection, or using packet sniffing tactics. Since the data is in unencrypted form, it becomes easier for them to spy and steal the data.

In addition, hackers can even use advanced technologies to search for vulnerable mobile devices with open Bluetooth connections within a range. When hackers make a Bluetooth connection with your phone, they can access all data and even infect your device with malware to spy on your activities. 

Tracking Software

The cybercriminals can also sneak into your phone by installing various tracking software such as keyloggers that capture your phone's keystrokes and record whatever you type, search, or even tap. The use of Pegasus spyware against journalists and politicians is also an example of hackers installing software remotely to spy on and track users' activities and personal data. 

Tips To Prevent Your Phone From Getting Hacked?

While hackers use several ways to intercept your phone and steal sensitive data, you can still prevent them. Maintaining and practicing good cyber hygiene can keep hackers away while protecting your device and personal data. 

Here are the best security practices essential to prevent phone hacking:

  1. Updating the phone is the primary and easiest way to prevent your phone from potential hackers. Regular updates fix vulnerabilities that hackers can easily exploit to enter your device. 
  2. Encrypting your devices is another best way to prevent phone hacking and keep the data safe from all cyber snoopers. Android and iPhones offer device encryption features, so you can rest assured that no one can get your hands on your data by enabling it. 
  3. Hackers can break into your phones through unsecured Wi-Fi networks or while using malicious apps. Use a reliable VPN provider that encrypts the entire data traffic and makes your activities and data private from all snooping eyes. 
  4. Using the best Android and iPhone encryption apps also helps mitigate phone hacking. It securely stores and protects files, images, documents, and credentials and guarantees that no third party can access your personal information. 
  5. Using a two-factor authentication feature boosts device security and can help keep hackers away. This adds an extra layer of protection and asks to verify the identity beyond using a password. So, even if hackers know your password, they can't access your accounts and steal data. 
  6.  Your digital data can be of great value to hackers, who can often use it to scam you. Thus, delete your browsing history and clear cookies after every browsing session.

Besides these tips, always keep your eyes on your phone. Don't take device security casually and always install comprehensive security software on your device.


What to do if someone’s phone has been hacked?

If someone's phone has been hacked and they already knew it, the worst thing they can do is ignore it. Though the idea of a hacker breaking into your phone and stealing valuable data is quite depressing, there are steps that you can take on to stop any such future incident or reduce the damage that's already been done. Changing your passwords, resetting your device, running anti-malware software, and identifying and deleting suspicious apps are a few things everyone must follow after a phone hacking incident. 

How to check if someone’s phone has been hacked?

There are various tell-tale signs that you can always look for to check for phone hacking. If you have a strange browsing experience, seeing apps that you can't recognize, slower device performance, increased data usage, and receive fake antivirus or ransomware messages. All these signs indicate the presence of hackers on your phones.

What’s the best way to keep mobile data safe?

Several ways prove to be the best in keeping mobile data safe. But the best of all is using a legitimate VPN provider. A VPN uses end-to-end encryption to encrypt the entire data traffic and safeguard it from all prying eyes. Whether it is online or offline data a VPN’s strong encryption makes it impossible for hackers to intercept and breach your privacy. 

Final Thoughts

As hackers are getting more sophisticated each day and using new tactics to sneak into your phones, protecting your phone and the data it contains has become necessary. The phone devices contain tons of sensitive data and if it gets into the hands of hackers, they can use it to carry out malicious activities. Hackers use different methods to enter your phone like launching a phishing attack, using some tracking software, or exploiting vulnerabilities of unsecured Wi-Fi networks. 

Various signs certainly inform you about a hacker's presence on your phone. Some of these signs are discussed in this article as well. Every individual must look for these signs and implement a defensive cyber strategy to avoid the unwanted consequences of phone hacking.

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Rebecca James is an IT consultant with forward thinking approach toward developing IT infrastructures of SMEs. She writes to engage with individuals and raise awareness of digital security, privacy, and better IT infrastructure.

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