WebRTC Expert Feature

February 09, 2021

5 foolproof ways to know if an app is safe to install

Between banking, social media and online shopping, apps have made our lives easier — but how do you know if an app is safe to download? Since our phones contain huge amounts of personal information, hackers often try to get people to download malicious apps. Luckily, there are a few steps you can take to check whether an app is secure before clicking “install.”

The cybersecurity experts at ESET shared their mobile app safety checklist with us.

#1 Download the app from a safe and trusted source

Your best bet is to download the app from the Apple App Store or Google Play. These stores have strict guidelines and a thorough vetting process, meaning every app that makes it onto these marketplaces has been screened for safety, legitimacy and quality. In other words, a developer would have a hard time sneaking questionable or malicious content onto those platforms without being flagged.

Along with having strict developer criteria for safe Android apps to download, app stores require apps to clearly display their terms of service, contact information and troubleshooting FAQ. That way, you’ll know exactly what to do if you’re having issues with your app. Finally, app stores are sticklers for removing apps that “break the rules” or publish poor content.

App stores aren’t created equal. If you download an app from an outside marketplace like GetJar or Amazon Appstore, you run the risk of installing an app with malicious code. This practice is known as “sideloading,” and while you might save a few bucks by going through a third-party app store, you could end up with a less-than-reliable app on your phone. Remember, if an app sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

The big stores close the gap between you and the app developer and offer more phone safety app protection.

#2 Research the app’s credibility

Like with any purchase, it’s a good idea to do a little detective work before reaching for your credit card. After all, knowledge is power!

When you’re doing a background check, look for these things:

  • The name of the developer. This will be written below the app’s name. It’s worth Googling the developer to see how many apps they’ve developed. While you’re at it, scan their privacy policy to find out what information they collect and whether they keep yours confidential. Reputable app developers have a solid online presence, so if you can’t even find a legitimate link to their site, that’s a red flag.
  • Security credentials. The best apps have security measures in place to protect your personal information and credit card details. An easy way to confirm this is by looking for logos like “BBB Accredited,” “Verisign Secured” and “Norton Secured.” If the app uses a secure server and encrypts your data, those are signs of trustworthiness.
  • Published date. Before downloading an app, look for the “updated on” date on the app store. Then, use your best judgement to figure out if the data is realistic. For example, Facebook launched its app in 2011, so any changes will be released as updates. If you come across a brand-new Facebook app, it’s likely a fake.
  • Number of downloads. The more downloads, the better! It means the app is time-tested and other consumers have done their own digging and believe it’s legit.
  • Star rating. The same goes with the star rating. Ideally, the app will have a 4- or 5-star rating, which points to a positive user experience.
  • Spelling and grammar mistakes. Similar to phishing scams, poor spelling and grammar in the app’s description can be a sign that it was created quickly — or by a non-native speaker. This isn’t reason alone to avoid the app, but you should pay special attention to the other factors on this list.
  • Reviews. Finally, read what other people are saying about the app. In most cases, fake apps have very few, 5-star reviews. A real app should have a higher volume of reviews, and mixed ones at that — so keep an eye out for users who ran into billing issues and glitches.

#3 Read the privacy policy

As tempting as it is to scroll down and accept the terms and conditions, please don’t! In the cybersecurity world, data is currency, and it’s important to know how companies collect and use yours.

Whenever you download an app, it will pull some of your data — like your email address, social media login and even your contact list. Some of this might be necessary, but many apps try to collect extra data from their consumers. To learn what information you’re essentially handing over, read over the privacy policy. Once you find out what the app is tracking and how it’s using your data, ask yourself if you’re okay with that. If not, you may want to skip that download and look into similar apps that don’t collect as much information.

#4 Check the app’s permissions

While you’re in reading mode, double-check which permissions are granted to the app. These are the ways in which the app interacts with your phone, and you can find them under “permission details” on the app store.

An app shouldn’t need too many permissions to function — and the ones they do need should be relevant. For example, a social media app might need access to your photo gallery, but why’s it asking for your phone call log? Does a game app need access to your location, and does a recipe app need to be able to read your messages? While some permissions are inevitable, only download apps that respect your right to privacy.

If you stumble on an app with a long list of permissions, avoid it. And if you're not sure whether an app is crossing a boundary, feel free to email the developer and ask them to clarify their permissions. They should be completely transparent with you.

#5 Install a sophisticated antivirus software

Research aside, an antivirus software can offer another line of defence against malicious apps. A premium mobile phone antivirus program like ESET Mobile Security protects your Android phone from a range of cyber threats (like malware), and prevents hackers from accessing your systems and information via an app. It was recently rated as AV-Test’s Best Antivirus for Android, and earned a top score for the second year in a row.

The Android antivirus software also blocks offensive and harmful content, and you can install it on your smartphone, tablet and laptop under one shared license.

Try to stay on top of software updates, too. At ESET, we release them regularly to address new issues and keep you — and your data — safe.

Still have questions about apps?

Get in touch with ESET and we’ll be happy to answer your cybersecurity questions and point you towards the best software to scan my phone for viruses.

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