Stalker apps: Think there’s one on your phone? Here’s what to do
On Wednesday, we told you about ‘stalker apps’, which can be secretly installed on your phone and give someone your e-mails, texts, recordings of calls and whereabouts, as well as activating the phone’s microphone to use as a bug.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission lists several danger signs that your phone has been targeted by a stalker app: the battery drains quickly, it’s hard to turn off, someone knows about your life in a level of detail that’s hard to account for.
To install spyware, someone will usually have had to have access to your phone for at least 10 or 15 minutes.
So, what to do about it? On a technical level, the answer is simple:
- Check to see if your phone has been ‘rooted’ (for Android phones) or ‘jailbroken’ (for iOS), and you didn’t do it. The process bypasses software restrictions on the device, and is usually necessary to install spyware. A ‘root checker’ app may be able to tell you.
- A virus check may not tell you much. Flexispy, a major spyware maker, claimed until this week that its app wasn’t detectable by antivirus programs. (We asked the company why this feature existed. “We are not a virus, nor a trojan, nor malware, therefore we do not believe that we have to justify our place on [a] device any more than a backup program that is purchased and installed by the user of the device,” responded spokesperson Marc Harris.)
Note: Flexispy’s legal disclaimer asks customers to “acknowledge you own the mobile phone you will install the software on, or have consent from the owner to administrate the device & install software onto it,” though elsewhere on the site it admits that “FlexiSPY gives you total control of your partner’s phone without them knowing it.”
- Reset the phone. ” The only way to effectively remove a stalking app from a phone is to reset it and re-install the manufacturer’s operating system,” the FTC says.
But that doesn’t solve the larger problem, which is that someone has gone to such lengths to spy on you in the first place. It will be immediately obvious that you’ve found out about the spyware, if it suddenly stops working:
“Remember that taking any of these steps could tip off your abuser — especially if you use your phone to research your options, make a call, or have a conversation near your phone,” the FTC release says. “If you are concerned your phone might be monitored, consider leaving it behind when you are seeking help.”
(On Wednesday, we wrote about a Minnesota woman whose spyware-infected phone told her abusive partner her location as she got help at a local domestic violence centre, and went to the courthouse to get a restraining order.)
“The problem is that there’s an abusive partner,” says Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Battered Women’s Support Services in Vancouver.
“With the stalking app, that an abusive partner that will go to that length demonstrates another level of commitment, another level of power and control of her. She will have to decide whether to disable this or not, based on what she thinks. It makes a difference whether she’s still in the relationship and is being surveilled, or has left the relationship.”
Getting another phone could be an option, as is not carrying the spyware-infected phone, though that might not be a solution either: “The abusive partner is just going to ask questions about why you don’t have the phone.”
We asked Wednesday about your experience with spyware apps. Here are some responses:
|This happened to me by an untrusting male, almost mirroring what you shared here and the comments posted by a reader on Facebook. I also believe this person had an IT friend of his help him. It’s started again after this person contacted me recently and when I confronted him, it stopped. I want/need to deal with this, it’s a horrid thing to go through, but I need my phone checked to prove it.|
|This phone I’m using has some on it from my ex. He took my phone and left the house with it. Got it back later and he knows waaaay to much about what I do who I talk to and where I am to not have something in my phone. Also really strange but I delete things – pictures,messages and emails. And they always reappear. Always. Seems obvious that he still has access to my phone.|
|I used spyware on my now ex-boyfriend. He was bipolar and both physically and mentally abusive. I wanted to see what he was telling other people (family) about me as far as his reasons why he hit me. I also had reason to believe that he was cheating on me. I knew I would be able to use that against him as a way to break away from him. Any other time I tried to leave he would become violent and beat the crap out of me. At least with him focused on another girl, I knew he wouldn’t fight too much when I left.|
The spyware gave me everything I needed as proof to be able to grab my things and leave. The spyware actually saved my life because even after I left I could see when he was planning on trying to find me and where he was going.
It was a godsend for me.
I also printed out everything he was texting as proof to the cops at what his intentions were. Not only did I get an instant restraining order with the proof, they didn’t have to wonder who was telling the truth when he would lie straight to their faces and say that I asked him to come over and talk.