Mobile Hacking on Increase as More Consumers Leave Their Phones Unprotected

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Millions of smartphone owners are unknowingly leaving themselves vulnerable to hackers and malware attacks leading to the loss of sensitive data and money, even when the solution to keeping a phone secure is relatively simple.

Kaspersky Labs reports that 295,000 new mobile malicious programs were detected in 2014, almost three times the number found the year before, and that its security software had fended off about 1.4 million attacks on smartphones. McAfee, which is owned by Intel (INTC) , said it had detected four million such attacks so far this year and expects that number to grow exponentially in the coming years as cyber criminals begin using ready-to-use hacker kits designed to make stealing data even simpler.

While criminal enterprises are the primary force behind the attacks, the real reason for the expected growth is consumer apathy. Most smartphone owners do not take the time to implement a few basic steps that would help secure their phone and, in fact many, unknowingly leave the door wide open and invite in the hackers.

"We have found that while consumers say they worry about device and data security, ironically most are willing to allow apps access to personal information. A recent Symantec survey found that nearly two in five (37%) do not worry at all about getting a virus on their smartphone," said David Lee, senior manager, mobile product management at Symantec (SYMC) , maker of the Norton brand of Internet security software.

Today the main threat is coming from the huge number of apps, mainly Android, being downloaded onto phones and tablets. Lee said hackers are using apps as a Trojan horse to sneak into phones. The main reason they are able to gain such easy entry is people pay little attention to what permissions they are giving the app when it's downloaded.

"App users think they understand what they agree to when downloading the app, but in reality have little understanding of common app permission practices and behaviors," Lee said, adding to make matters worse a recent Symantec survey found concluded that 66 percent of people will willingly trade their privacy for a free app.

In many cases phone owners are their own worst enemy when they do not read what private data to which they are giving the app access.

Once the hacker has access, the primary danger faced is losing sensitive data. This could lead to identity theft or having money stolen as hackers are now paying particular attention to financial apps. Kaspersky Labs found 12,100 mobile banking Trojans were detected in 2014, nine times as many as last year, while Symantec found about three million apps are malicious of more than 15 million scanned.

Another threat is ransomware. This malware locks out a person from their device. Then they receive a message saying they have to pay a certain amount of money to regain access.

While the dangers are very real, enabling basic protection on a phone or tablet is relatively simple.

Gary Davis, McAfee's chief consumer security evangelist, pointed out that everyone should password or PIN protect their phone and enable its lock and locate capabilities. Many problems occur when a phone is lost and ends up in the wrong hands. People also need to be aware they are particularly vulnerable when using a public Wi-Fi hotspot, but this can be fixed by installing security software.

Davis said McAfee's software will warn a user if the hotspot is unsecured, meaning a bad guy could be at a nearby table sipping coffee while he busily swipes your data.

Most important, security software will scan an app as it is being downloaded and will discover anything malicious before it is installed.

Another way to help secure a phone during a financial transaction is to use one of the new digital payment systems such as Apple's  (AAPL)  Apple Pay or Google's  (GOOGL)  Wallet. Davis said these avoid interacting with a retailer's computer, eliminating the possibility of being attacked by a hacked company system -- such as what happened with Target (TGT) , Home Depot (HD) and other retailers last year.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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