News & Analysis

How to Recognize Stalkerware and Then Remove It

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In the past, we have heard of stalkers expressing their criminal intentions on innocent victims. Then came the cyber stalkers who were less harmful but more in your face as they tracked all and beyond your digital activity. Now, with more and more people stuck at home, stalkerware has come to the forefront of malicious behaviour. 

Of course, all the above three behaviours are unethical as it circumvents personal choice. But, when it comes to stalkerware, this unethical software can result in data theft, monitoring of your emails and text messages and even intercepting phone calls with a malicious intention of eavesdropping for reasons only known to the criminals.

Market research shared by digital security company Avast says online spying and stalkerware solutions had doubled during the March-to-June timeframe this year. Cybersecurity experts tell us that stalkerware services itself implies that customers know their victims because several of these spyware apps need manual installation. In other words, users have to download the app, install it and enter credentials they receive upon purchase. 

We won’t tell you where to find such stalkerware programs but suffice to stay that you may not find them on Google Play or App Store. Of course, in the unlikely event of one popping up on an official app store, cybersecurity researchers raise a flag and get it removed. So, instead of taking time to find where these offensive apps can be found, it’s better we focus on how to know it’s been installed on a smartphone. 

How to Know You’re Spied On

  • Surge in data usage – In case you observe sudden spikes in data usage over two or three months though you haven’t really changed usage patterns, there is a possibility that your phone is infected. Devices with adware do unsolicited clicks in the background to profit the cybercriminals and these tactics actually use up bandwidth. 
  • Inexplicable charges – Another sign could be unexpected charges on your phone bills, especially under the SMS charges category. These happen when your device has some stealthware as it sends out text messages to premium rate numbers like those that are announced to claim rewards during television commercials. 
  • Sudden Pop-ups – These could come in the shape of ads and notifications, reminders or even system warnings. Stalkerware adds bookmarks, website shortcuts etc. to the home screen which send spam notifications. It slows down the device and gobbles data. Also, these notifications could be installing more malware on your phone.
  •  App within Apps – This is a problem and you need to keep your eyes peeled for apps that you can’t remember installing. In fact, Avast has pointed out that the government’s Aarogya Setu app is attracting stalkerware which looks the same and works from behind the official app.
  • Battery Drain & Overheating – All of the unauthorised background activity drains your battery as does the overheating of your smartphone. 


Now comes the question as to what one can do in case any of the above symptoms do surface on your smartphone or any other device. Well, the most obvious measure is to ensure that we prevent the stalkerware from being installed. Here are a few steps that you could take: 

  • Prevention is better than cure, so you need to figure out that your phone too can be vulnerable. It just takes a malicious text message or an email to infect a phone but for stalkerware physical access could be essential, which is why the culprit could be one that you know fairly well. Which is why having biometrics enabled on the phone is good.
  • Erase and Reset the device after first taking a backup of your data. On Android phones, go to Settings, tap Backup & Reset and once done, select Factory Settings. This cleans up your phone and replaces the OS with a fresh version. For an iPhone, go to Settings and tap on General, scroll to the bottom and click Reset. Thereafter, select Erase All Content and Settings, though remember to backup your data before this step.
  • In case stalkerware is on your computer, you could use any of the malware removal programs that eliminates the problem without resetting or reformatting your system. Remember that most malicious programs are to be found in the OS folders that cannot be accessed easily. You could boot into a dedicated virus removal tool so that the system books from the antivirus software instead of the OS.  
  • Finally change all your passwords immediately and wherever possible use biometrics. If available enable two-factor authentication. You could consider creating a new email ID that is known only to you and then link it to your main accounts. Spend some time with existing apps and turn off permissions to use the cameras unless absolutely essential. 

Going forward you could minimise risks by having a strong password for your devices, changing them on a regular basis and not disclosing it to even people closest to you. You could block off all third-party apps and still keep checking those installed on your system and delete unwanted ones on a regular basis. 

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