Recently, ‘Karen’ a 27-year-old paralegal, called me in a panic. Several weeks after ending a relationship with her ex-boyfriend over his controlling behavior, Karen was freaked out because he kept appearing everywhere. She wondered how he always seemed to know her exact location: Had he installed a GPS tracker on her car? Was he following her? For Karen, and many other clients lately, the answer has been far simpler – though just as sinister. While meeting her for coffee to get ‘closure’, Karen’s ex had waited until she took a bathroom break to fish out her cell phone and install a ‘stalker app’.
Cyberstalking has become a huge part of my domestic abuse cases. NPR recently reported on MSpy, an app that is marketed to parents monitoring their children – but has been co-opted by jealous and obsessed lovers. There are tons of these apps out there, including StealthGenie and MobileSpy.
The spyware only requires that the person who installs it have access for a few minutes – in the time it takes to go to the bathroom at a coffee shop or take a quick shower, a stalker can gain access to your entire life.
Along with pinpointing exact GPS locations, apps like MSpy allow users to remotely access call history, text messages sent and received – and even listen in to conversations around the phone by activating microphone. The app has exact instructions – with screenshots – that explain how to install the app quickly, then go to the victim’s ‘settings’ page and delete any trace.
So how do you know if your phone has been compromised?
For iPhone: Check to see if it is jailbroken
Unlike on Androids, there is no surefire way to examine the files on iPhones. The good news? Installing spyware requires that the phone to be jailbroken -meaning that someone has modified the phone to get past the built-in security controls. If the phone is not jailbroken, you’re most likely safe. Apps like Cydia and Icy are dead giveaways that the phone has been compromised.
If it is, upgrade the latest iOS release to get the phone un-jailbroken, then install a program such as Lookout Security that will warn you if the phone is jailbroken in future.
For Android: Look at the phone’s program files
Many apps will leave behind telltale signs in the program files, if you are comfortable with looking for them, such as ‘stealth’ or ‘spy’. However be aware that many of the apps aren’t visible unless you know exactly what you are looking for – they hide under innocent-sounding names such as ‘Android.sys’. So I still advise doing a factory reset (details below).
For everyone: Chose strong password
Pick a password that no one – especially a potential stalker – can guess. Don’t use mother’s maiden name, street you grew up on or pet name – because these things can almost all be found online.
Perform factory reset
This will delete almost all of the stalker apps – but can also result in losing data. To avoid this, first back up contacts, music, etc. (Note: For Blackberries, a factory reset is almost always necessary because it can be very difficult to locate stalker apps in the directory files).
DO NOT automatically re-install all apps – instead, put in the ones that you need manually. You don’t want to re-install the spyware!
Buy a burner phone
Buying a non-smart phone is the first tip that I give my clients who fear that they may be compromised. It’s as easy as walking into a phone store, buying a prepaid SIM card under a name like ‘Mickey Mouse’ and combining this with an old-school flip phone. While analyzing the situation, they can leave their at-risk phones somewhere safe, like a desk drawer.
Even in a technologically advanced age, sometimes the old-school methods are still the safest.