How to spot the signs of stalkerware on your phone

Grace Macej 2 Oct 2020

Examining the role of stalkerware in harmful relationships, plus advice on how to identify and remove it from mobile devices

As we reported earlier this year, domestic violence incidents have increased since stay-at-home orders related to Covid-19 were issued. What’s more, abusive behavior carried over into the digital world as well: Between March and June 2020, Avast Threat Labs observed a 51% increase in spyware and stalkerware compared to the first two months of the year.

In July of this year, Google took one step toward decreasing the popularity of stalkerware when they banned "the promotion of products or services that are marketed or targeted with the express purpose of tracking or monitoring another person or their activities without their authorization". However, critics have noted that they’re still allowing nearly identical apps that are advertised as being for private detectives or for parents to track minor children.

Stalkerware’s role in harmful relationships

We’ve now reached the month of October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It’s important to note that a strong correlation exists between harmful relationships and the presence of stalkerware on devices of those in said relationships.

Regarding this correlation, Avast CISO Jaya Baloo says the following: “If you are already in an abusive relationship – or fear it is heading that way – you could be at greater risk from stalkerware. An innocent visit to, say a café to meet a friend or relative, could be reported by a stalkerware app and provide the trigger for abuse. If you have reached this stage, you need help and support fast – and you should not hesitate to seek it.”

Resources for victims and survivors of domestic violence:
NO MORE’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month website
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV)
List of hotlines on the NCADV website

While it’s important for everyone to have access to information on how to remove stalkerware from their devices, it’s also crucial to acknowledge potential risks that stalkerware removal could cause. “Once stalkerware is installed, the act of removing it could alert the abusive partner. So preventing installation is a priority. The first thing to do is ensure your phone is pin code or password protected, this will help stop software being installed without your knowledge. You should also install modern antivirus software, which will alert you to any attempts to install stalkerware and help you to remove it. Both of these steps are normal reasonable things to do for security of the device and your personal data. If your partner strongly objects to either of these reasonable steps, that again indicates that you should get help to protect yourself,” says Baloo.

Telltale signs of stalkerware on your mobile device

  • You notice that your devices’ performance is suddenly and unexpectedly worse: You may notice slow-downs or more frequent crashes or freezes.

  • Your settings have changed without your consent: If you suddenly have a new browser homepage, new icons on your desktop, a different default search engine, or other changes that you didn’t make, it might be due to stalkerware.

  • You get weird messages: A sudden flood of pop-ups or error messages from programmes that always worked fine before may indicate spyware.

How to prevent stalkerware if you think you are at risk

  • Secure your phone against all unauthorized physical access: Ensure your phone or device uses two factor authentication - such as a pin code and a second form of identity confirmation such as an email backup or thumbprint.

  • Install a reliable antivirus product on your mobile phone: A good mobile antivirus will treat stalkerware as a PUP – a potentially unwanted program – and give you the option to remove it.

How to manually remove stalkerware from your phone

  • Reboot your phone into safe mode: Hold down your phone’s power button to see your Power off and Restart options. Long-press the Power off option and the Reboot to safe mode option will appear. Tap OK.

  • Remove any suspicious apps: Once rebooted in safe mode open up your Settings and tap Apps or Apps & notifications. Sort through your apps and look for anything you don’t recognize.

  • Remove any malicious apps: Tap Uninstall to remove it from your device. If you’re not sure, try searching for the name of the app to see if others have also had issues with it.

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