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How to protect your Android phone or tablet from viruses and hackers

Android phones and tablets are vulnerable to attack from viruses and hackers, although there are plenty of steps you can take to fight off infection and stay safe. Here's how to protect your Android device from viruses, malware and other bad stuff, including our tips and tricks guide for getting rid of anything that infects your handset.

Nowadays, the term ‘virus’ is more closely associated with the world of technology over the likes of the common cold.

As with its biological counterpart, a virus is a generic terms which can refer to all manner of bad software which infects your mobile phone or tablet. Android handsets are vulnerable to viruses, just like computers and other electronic devices, although a little common sense and some friendly advice can help your smartphone or tablet to stay malware-free.

Here we'll explain all you need to know about Android viruses, including what they are, how to diagnose any issues, top tips for staying safe and some info on the latest Android viruses.

What is Android malware and what are Android viruses?

Malware means malicious software. This term can refer to an application containing a virus or malicious code designed to either damage your device or worse, steal your personal data including contacts, location information and financial details.

One such method of attack which has seen increasing popularity has been Toll Fraud: the act of which involves a user clicking on a spurious mobile ad, which is tied to automated systems which download malicious software to the users phone. This malware then charges the user and the profits made are split between the distributors of the spurious advertising and writers of the malicious application. The full process is demonstrated in the diagram below.

Toll Fraud Diagram

Despite the increasing dangers of malicious applications, their activity is far more prevalent in select regions in the world where older handsets (using outdated versions of Android) are the norm. However, viruses can easily spread around the world, despite the best efforts of experts to prevent them from doing so.

Is my Android phone safe from infection by viruses?

No Android smartphone or tablet is truly 'safe' from infection. Even installing the latest antivirus software isn't a guarantee that some malware won't somehow end up on your mobile device.

How 'safe' your phone is depends on your own actions. For instance, most infected apps don't come from Android’s official apps store, known as Google Play. They are downloaded from third-party websites, where there is no regulation whatsoever from Google. In other words, you don't really know for sure what you're downloading and installing on your handset.

Understanding what constitutes as a safe or unsafe application should help you discern what to look out for and how best to manage your own device securely.

What is the latest Android virus?

New Android viruses are hitting our handsets all of the time, sadly. In fact, some have been around for months or even years and are only just being detected now; the likes of SpyMaster, for instance, was happily infecting Android phones and tablets for close to two years before experts finally discovered it.

Check out our what is the latest Android virus feature to see which new Android malware has recently been discovered, including tips on how to diagnose your phone and prevent infection.

How can I protect my Android phone or tablet from viruses?

First and foremost, no solution guarantees absolute protection, as is the case with PC Antivirus software. With new ways to attack a system being produced all the time, it’s a tricky business to stay abreast of. However, companies with lots of experience in this department are always striving to provide a more secure mobile experience through the release of useful information and apps that help to prevent infection.

Download a mobile security app

Right now you'll find a decent array of mobile security apps out there, many from brands you’ll likely be familiar with. Here's our pick of some of the best antivirus apps for Android phones and tablets.

  • McAfee Antivirus & Security - This app is freely available to Android users from Google Play. You get full protection from all manner of nasties, with regularly updated antivirus definitions, remote lock and remote wipe features, auto-backup, smartphone locator and even resource management on the side.
  • Norton Security and Antivirus - Another widely recognised software security brand that’s well established in the mobile space, the Norton Android app boasts similar services to McAfee’s, complete with remote smartphone management and more. You can get a 30-day trial of the premium features, which includes protection from fraudulent websites and an app scanner.
  • Lookout Security & Antivirus - Lookout is built from the ground up with mobile devices in mind, with plenty of great functionality to keep your Android phone or tablet virus-free. Safe WiFi keeps you from falling victim to dodgy WiFi attacks, while premium subscribers are entitled to identity theft insurance and more.

Keep Android up-to-date

A simple way to hinder or prevent viruses from infecting your Android phone is by keeping it fully up to date. Older versions of Android contain less protective measures, while Google is constantly updating its mobile OS to plug security holes and keep your handset safe.

Check out our full guide on updating Android for more info.

Check app permissions

Whenever an app opens up for the first time, it will ask for permission to access your private data and smartphone hardware. This is your chance to see exactly what the app wants to do, and shut it down if you're not happy.

You can edit an app's permissions at any time with the latest versions of Android. Just head to your phone or tablet's settings menu and then tap 'Apps & Notifications'. In here you'll find an App Permissions section, which shows you exactly which apps have access to which features. You can disable app permissions if you're unsure about anything, although bear in mind that this will stop many legitimate apps from functioning properly.

Switch off 'Unknown sources' and stick to Google Play

Depending on which version of Android your device runs, you’ll have the option to allow or disallow ‘Unknown sources' of non-market applications. Clicking 'allow' enables you to find app files such as .APKs from elsewhere on the internet, to endow your Android phone with applications unavailable through official Google channels.

The downside to this is that such apps are unmoderated and include an increased risk of containing viruses or malware.

You'll find this option in the Android settings menu, within the Security & Location section. In here you'll also find your Android security patch level, which shows when your handset was last updated with virus definitions and bug fixes.

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