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RECOVERING FROM IDENTITY THEFT

What is identity theft?

By Alex Santiago

Identity theft is a serious crime. Identity theft happens when someone uses information about you without your permission. They could use your:

  • name and address
  • credit card or bank account numbers
  • Social Security number
  • phone or utility account numbers
  • medical insurance numbers

How will I know if my identity was stolen?

Here are ways you can tell that someone is using your information:

  • You see withdrawals from your bank account that you cannot explain.
  • You find credit card charges that you didn’t make.
  • The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says someone used your Social Security number to get a tax refund or a job.
  • You do not get your bills or other mail.
  • You get bills for utilities or medical services you did not use.
  • Debt collectors call you about debts that are not yours.
  • You find strange accounts or charges on your credit report.

What is IdentityTheft.gov?

IdentityTheft.gov is a website that helps you recover from identity theft. You:

  • answer questions about what happened to you
  • put in your name, address, and other information
  • get your Identity Theft Report
  • get a recovery plan created just for you

You also can create an account. The account helps you through the recovery steps and tracks your progress.

What is an Identity Theft Report?

An Identity Theft Report helps you fix your bills and your credit report. Your Identity Theft Report tells your creditors that you should not have to pay for what the identity thief spent.

You get an Identity Theft Report when you report a problem to IdentityTheft.gov. This is your statement about what happened. It lists what accounts are not yours and what charges you did not make.

What is a credit report?

Your credit report is a summary of your credit history. It lists:

  • your name, address, and Social Security number
  • your credit cards
  • your loans
  • how much money you owe
  • if you pay your bills on time or late

Who creates my credit report?

A credit bureau creates your credit report. The credit bureau gathers information about you and your credit history.

There are three main credit bureaus:

  • Equifax
  • Experian
  • Transunion

What is a fraud alert?

A fraud alert tells businesses that they must contact you before they give someone credit in your name. You put a fraud alert on your credit report. A fraud alert makes it hard for someone else to open new accounts in your name.

There are a few kinds of fraud alerts. They are all free:

  • Initial fraud alert – lasts for one year. Use this if you thinksomeone stole your identity.
  • Extended fraud alert – lasts for seven years. Use this if you knowsomeone stole your identity.
  • Active duty alert – lasts up to one year. Use this if you are in the military and deployed.

What do I do when someone steals my identity?

It is very important to act fast.

First, call the companies where you know fraud happened.

  • Explain that someone stole your identity.
  • Ask them to close or freeze your accounts.
  • Then change your password or personal identification number (PIN).

Then visit IdentityTheft.gov or call 1-877-438-4338.

  • Report the crime and get a recovery plan that’s just for you.
  • You can create an account. The account helps you with the recovery steps and tracks your progress.

For Example

Why is it important to act so fast?

If you wait, the identity thief has more time to cheat you. That means there are more problems to fix. Acting fast means there should be fewer problems to fix.

Why should I use IdentityTheft.gov?

IdentityTheft.gov helps you fix problems related to identity theft, like these:

  • mistakes on your credit report
  • accounts that are not yours
  • mistakes on your bills
  • getting extended fraud alerts

IdentityTheft.gov also gives you a recovery plan just for you.

What comes first in my recovery plan?

The first step of your recovery plan is to call the credit bureaus. Ask the credit bureau for an initial fraud alert. It is free and lasts for 90 days. The fraud alert makes it harder for thieves to open accounts in your name.

The next step is to ask all three credit bureaus for a credit report. If someone stole your identity, your credit report is free. Look at your credit report for things you do not recognize.

How do I fix mistakes on my credit report?

Send a letter to the credit bureau to fix mistakes on your credit report. IdentityTheft.gov gives you letters that are filled out with your information. You can print the letter, sign it, and send it to the credit bureau.

How do I fix mistakes on my bills?

You might find mistakes when you read your bills. There might be charges you do not recognize. You can send a letter to the company that has the mistakes. Ask the company to fix those mistakes.

IdentityTheft.gov gives you letters filled out with your information. You can print the letter, sign it, and send it to the company. Use the address the company gives for disputes.

Then change your password and PIN with the company that has the mistakes on your bills.

How do I close an account that is not mine?

Your credit report might list accounts that you did not open. You can send a letter to the business that has the account. Ask them to close the account.

IdentityTheft.gov gives you letters that are filled out with your information. You can print the letter, sign it, and send it to the business. Send a copy of your Identity Theft Report with the letter.

A business might ask you to use a form to close an account. If they do, send that form.

What happens when my initial fraud alert expires?

You can put an extended fraud alert on your credit report. An extended fraud alert is good for seven years.

IdentityTheft.gov helps you place the alert. Contact each credit bureau to ask for an extended fraud alert. You might have to give them a copy of your Identity Theft Report.

18 WAYS TO GET FREE MONEY FROM THE GOVERNMENT

Editor’s note – You can trust the integrity of our balanced, independent financial advice. We may, however, receive compensation from the issuers of some products mentioned in this article. Opinions are the author’s alone, and this content has not been provided by, reviewed, approved or endorsed by any advertiser.

Normally the government takes our money. In some cases, however, it hands out cash. Here are 18 ways to get free money from the government.

Nothing in life is free, or so they say. But what if I told you that we know of 18 government programs where you really, truly can get free money (or services)? If you’re anything like me, I’ve probably piqued your interest.Below are some of the ways you can get your hands on money that’s rightfully yours. We’ve also included was to find assistance and funds when you need it most.

1. Find Unclaimed Money

Ok, full disclosure: this isn’t really a way to find “free” money. However, it can help you collect on funds you didn’t even know you were missing.

Simply visit unclaimed.org and enter your information to search whether you have money waiting to be returned to you. The National Association of State Treasurers created the site to connect consumers with forgotten funds. These can include insurance reimbursements, apartment deposits, forgotten savings bonds, old utility payment overages or deposits, or paychecks you never cashed.

You can search by specifics like your full name and address. Or you can even just browse the results from your last name alone. (I found a few unclaimed health insurance reimbursements for my mom this way, to the total of $400!)

2. Find Unclaimed Pension Funds

Okay, one more not-really-free-but-yours-already resource. If you’ve left a company due to acquisition, merger, or layoffs, you may have been too preoccupied with your next career move to remember pension funds. Luckily, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) can help you reconnect with this forgotten money.

Visit pbgc.gov to check your name and information against their database. There are currently almost 73,000 names on their unclaimed pensions list. So you may very well find some money you had forgotten all about!

3. Get Help With a Down Payment

One of the biggest hurdles in buying a new home is likely the down payment required. Luckily, the government is willing to provide help if needed.

Each state has its own funded down payment programs with unique requirements and benefits. To see the state-sponsored programs in your area, visit the FHA’s down payment grant page and search your state.

For example, Texas offers a statewide program that can cover down payments and closing costs up to 5% of the total mortgage price. They also offer a Hill Country-specific program for Travis County, if you’re looking to live “deep in the heart of Texas.”

4. Apply for Educational Grants

College is expensive. We all know that. In fact, the 2017-18 school year saw tuition averages of almost $35,000 for private colleges and just under $10,000 for state colleges. Ouch.

If you want to further your education but can’t afford the high costs of tuition, room, board, books, and more, an education grant might be a great option. The best and most broadly-offered funding source is the government’s Federal Pell Grant. This awards as much as $5,920 (2017-18 school year) to students each year that they qualify for need. And it doesn’t need to be repaid (unlike student loans).

In order to qualify, you’ll need to complete a FAFSA. You can view all of the details for the Pell Grant at ed.gov.

Beyond that, though, there are hundreds of excellent grants available to students based on interests, major or career sought, and even local areas. I was surprised to find that some organizations even offer grants to students who are left-handed!

You should, of course, shoot for the government’s Pell Grant first. But then fill out as many grant applications as you can find from other organizations and companies. A great place to find them is the College Grants Database.

5. Get Assistance with Childcare Expenses

Paying for childcare is expensive. For families in the D.C. area, where I live, the average annual cost is $22,658. That’s absurd and, frankly, impossible to cover for many families.

If you are employed and looking for assistance with childcare expenses, the government has a program to help. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers assistance in the form of the Child Care and Development Fund, which has state- and territory-specific allocations to assist with care expenses (typically for children 13 or under).

To find funding options for your area, visit the CCDF’s web page here.

6. Accept Healthcare Credits

Along with all of the confusion and frustration involved with healthcare in this country, we also get to deal with skyrocketing costs. This can make it difficult or even impossible for some folks to pay for much-needed premiums, especially as monthly prices continue to climb.

If you purchase coverage through the Healthcare Marketplace and meet certain income eligibility requirements, you can receive government assistance in the form of a tax credit. You also have options for this credit. You can either take it in equal allocations, allowing you to reduce (or eliminate) monthly premium payments, or you can “save” it for the end of the year. If you choose the latter, you’ll receive the credit in the form of a tax return when you file with the IRS.

Visit Healthcare.gov to learn more, qualify for your tax credit, and enroll in a health plan.

7. Get Free or Reduced Healthcare for Your Kids

If you are having trouble paying for health care for your children and meet low-income requirements, you may be eligible for free or reduced coverage through InsureKidsNow.gov.

Here, you can learn more about services like CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) and local Medicaid programs. You can also find health care providers in your area–even dentists!–and apply for your state’s specific programs.

8. Get Assistance With Utilities

The average American spends over $300 a month for basic utilities. It’s easy to see how these bills can be difficult to manage for some–especially in the summer or winter months. The government’s LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) provides funds to those in need across the nation.

These grants are available to assist residents with their heating and cooling expenses. They are managed through state programs (funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). To search for your state’s available programs and aid, visit the LIHEAP website here.

Ready to get your finances on track? Personal Capital’s free financial dashboard is our favorite tool to track your cash flow and calculate your net worth. Link your accounts and keep up with your money all in one beautifully presented and easy-to-read dashboard.

9. Winterize Your Home

Do you need assistance with updating and improving your home to winterize it? You may be able to get government it as a grant through the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Weatherization Assistance Program Technical Assistance Center (WAPTAC) can connect you with state-specific grant programs for home improvements to reduce energy expenses. If you have children, a family member in the home with a disability, or are over age 60, you’ll get preference for approval. In fact, the DOE estimates that as many as 20-30 million homes are eligible for weatherization grants.

10. Low-Cost or Free Phone Service

If you meet income requirements for eligibility, you may be able to take advantage of the Lifeline Program. This is the FCC’s free and reduced-cost cell phone grant. This allows access to cell phones and service for safety, well-being, and job-related needs.

The amount you’ll get per month varies by need. But you can choose from a number of cell service providers if you qualify. Eligibility requirements are as follows:

To learn more and see if you’re eligible, visit the FCC’s Lifeline website here.

11. Avoid Foreclosure

Since the housing crash of 2008, it seems that we all know someone who has been affected by a foreclosure. If you are at risk of foreclosure yourself, there is a program to help.

Called HOPE (run by the Home Ownership Preservation Foundation), this program offers assistance in setting up plans that allow you to stay in your home. They also offer advice if you’ve been the victim of a mortgage scam or if you are interested in a mortgage modification.

You can call their hotline at 888-995-HOPE or visit 995hope.org to learn more to see how this foundation can help you for free.

12. Get Free Tax Preparation

Tax filing time is just around the corner, but some of us may need a little help with preparing our taxes. Unfortunately, tax pros can be quite pricey.

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If you meet low-income requirements, you may qualify for free tax preparation help through the IRS’s VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) initiative.

Assistance is generally limited to those who make less than $54,000 a year, persons with disabilities, or those with limited English-speaking abilities. However, the program is available and free to all, so it can’t hurt to apply for help.

If you are age 60 or older, you can also take advantage of the TCE (Tax Counseling for the Elderly) program, another IRS initiative. This program offers free assistance for those nearing retirement who have questions about their pensions, retirement, income, and taxes.

To learn more and apply for assistance, visit the IRS’s website here.

13. Replace Damaged Currency

If your dog destroyed your wallet or your toddler took a pair of scissors to your bank withdrawal, you aren’t necessarily out of luck. Don’t throw those shredded bills in the trash just yet!

You can sometimes replace currency too damaged to be spent it at your local bank branch. If it’s so mutilated even they won’t take it, though, you can also send it to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing for replacement.

You’ll need to submit a claim online. The process can take between three and 36 months (depending on how bad of shape the money is in). So don’t expect a quick fix. However, this is a great solution for currency you may have thought was just a loss.

14. Apply for Unemployment

If you’ve been laid off or otherwise lost your job, you may be eligible for unemployment assistance while you’re looking for a new position. The Department of Labor offers temporary benefits to workers who find themselves unemployed through no fault of their own, until they are able to find suitable, replacement employment.

To see if you are eligible for one of these Federal-State programs and apply for benefits, visit the DOL’s website here.

15. Pay for Necessary Home Repairs in Urban Areas

If you are 62 years of age or older, live in an urban area, and meet income requirements, you may be eligible for a government grant to complete improvements on your home.

The Rural Housing Repair Loans and Grants program offers both loans (repaid over 20 years at 1% interest) and grants (free money that doesn’t need to be repaid) to homeowners in rural areas. The grants are for up to $7,500/ You can use them to remove or repair health or safety hazards (such as lead paint, collapsing structures, etc.).

To learn more or apply for a grant and/or loan, visit the Rural Housing info page here.

16. Refunds for Past FHA Mortgages

If you had an FHA-insured mortgage in the past, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) may owe you a refund. You can search the HUD database to see if you’re eligible for a refund through their website. You’ll need at least your last name or your FHA case number to search.

17. Food Assistance

The government offers a number of programs that give low-income families nutrition assistance and education on healthy eating.

These programs include WIC (for women, infants, and children), SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), programs for seniors, and various food distribution options. If you are interested in learning more, visit the Nutrition.gov page here.

18. SSI for Elderly or Disabled Individuals

If you are temporarily or permanently disabled, have a child who is disabled, or are over age 65 (with or without a disability), you may be eligible for supplemental security income (SSI) benefits.

These benefits are limited to those that meet certain income requirements. If you have worked long enough to qualify for Social Security benefits, you may be able to collect both Social Security retirement benefits and SSI benefits.

To learn more, visit the Social Security Administration’s page here.

Things to Remember

It’s important to keep a few things in mind when seeking out free money from the government (or anywhere, really).

First off, a Google search for “free money” is almost sure to net you some scam results. You need to ensure that any website you are visiting–especially if you give them your personal information–is a trusted entity. This means searching for .org, .gov, and similar web addresses. You should also make sure that the program is indeed government-sponsored.

If a website is offering you free money, make sure it explains how you’ll get said money. What is the application process? What are the eligibility requirements? Is the site transparent in explaining the process and what’s offered?

Also, make sure it doesn’t ask you for any sort of up-front money or fees in order to apply for free funds. No legitimate government program will ask you for money to receive assistance.

Free money is out there in various forms. Just be careful where you look and who you trust–if it sounds too good to be true, it just might be.

Author Bio

 

Stephanie Colestock is a respected financial writer based in Washington, DC. Her work can be found on sites such as Investopedia, Credit Karma, Quicken, The Balance, Motley Fool, and more, covering a range of topics such as family finances, planning for the future, optimizing credit, and getting out of debt. She is currently working toward her CFP certification. Her full portfolio can be found at stephaniecolestock.com

SECOND ROUND OF STIMULUS CHECKS

It seems everyone in America thinks a second stimulus check for consumers still reeling from the effects of COVID-19 is needed to re-ignite the U.S. economy.

Everyone except the U.S. Senate, specifically Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

While two polls, one conducted by WalletHub and another by CNBC/Change Research, showed nearly nine out of 10 Americas are in favor of a another stimulus check, McConnell wants more time to think about it.

The Senator from Kentucky has been preaching a wait-and-see approach since passing the $2.4 trillion CARES Act March 27. He doesn’t seem anxious to throw more money at a U.S. economy still staggering and in desperate need of financial help for coronavirus.

In no particular order, McConnell is worried that:

  • Another relief package would add trillions more to the federal deficit already skyrocketing past $25 trillion
  • Businesses and schools will be bombarded lawsuits related to the coronavirus
  • Unemployed workers will continue taking advantage of government handouts and resist seeking employment
  • A rush to do something will cause more problems than it solves

Will There Be a Second Round of Stimulus Checks?

Democrats and some Republicans in the Senate have voiced optimism that another relief package will get serious debate during the month of June and might even include some discussion of the $3 trillion HEROES Act that recently passed in the House of Representatives.

The HEROES ACT called for another $1,200 stimulus check for those making less than $75,000 ($2,400 for couples filing jointly), plus $1,200 each for up to three children.

During a radio interview in his home state of Kentucky, McConnell called the HEROES Act “not a serious piece of legislation” and said, “if there is another bill, it will originate in the Senate.”

His peers, no doubt hearing the financial screams of their constituents, will want to respond by talking seriously about the proposal that would put as much as $6,000 into a family budget.

At the very least, the popularity of the first stimulus check almost guarantees that some form of direct financial aid will be coming this summer.

When Might There Be a Second Stimulus Check?

The Senate is in session until July 3, when they will go on a two-week break surrounding the July Fourth holiday. That gives them more than a month to offer new ideas or extract worthy ones from the HEROES Act.

The first relief bill, the $2.1 trillion CARES Act, took only 10 days to draw up, debate and pass. Expecting that kind of action in Round Two would be considered wildly optimistic.

McConnell is adamant that the Senate will draw up the next relief bill, but didn’t say what it would look like or whether a second round of stimulus checks would be part of it. His focus – and likely most potent bargaining chip – is legislation that includes liability protection for businesses and schools.

“Part of getting back to normal is to not let there be a second epidemic in the wake of the pandemic, and the epidemic would be an epidemic of litigation,” McConnell said. “Businesses and schools are not going to open if they’re afraid of being sued. We need to deal with that, or we have no chance of getting back to normal.”

McConnell also is intent on helping states provide unemployment benefits, though he’s opposed to extending the $600 a week bonus that the CARES Act adds to state unemployment checks. That provision expires at the end of July, and may not be resuscitated.

“A lot of folks are getting paid more not to work than to work and that is counterproductive,” he said. “The goal here is to get people back to work. Structuring it the same way again would be a mistake.”

What Is America Saying about Stimulus Checks?

Whenever a new “normal” returns, most Americans want it to include a second stimulus check. The WalletHub poll conducted in late April, showed 84% of Americans want a second wave of stimulus checks. The poll also showed 160 million Americans were three months away from running out of money, meaning time is of the essence.

The CNBC/Change Research poll involved people in the battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina. It was conducted the first week in May and 94% of respondents said it’s important that people who have lost jobs or wages receive relief. Another 74% of respondents support recurring direct payments to individuals until the pandemic ends.

Whether they get it – and how much it’s worth – will depend on how urgently McConnell steers legislation through the Senate. The Majority Leader has made it clear he’s concerned about how the relief packages are impacting the federal deficit, which has flown past $25 trillion.

The CARES Act helped add another $737 billion to this year’s deficit in April, by far the largest monthly shortfall in the 40 years data has been collected.

“We now have a national debt that is the size of our economy for the first time since World War II,” McConnell said. “We’ve got to be aware here of what we’re doing to the long-term future of our country with this level of debt.

“That’s why I think this next bill should be carefully crafted after we begin to see the impact of reopening again.”

Details on the HEROES Act

While McConnell completely dismisses the HEROES Act, there are going to be parts of it that Democrats will push to keep. It is loaded with huge coronavirus cash relief to seemingly every sector of American life. Among the things it provides:

  • Almost $875 billion for state and local governments
  • $200 billion in hazard pay for some essential workers
  • $850 million for child and family care for essential workers
  • $75 billion to expand COVID-19 testing and contact tracing
  • $100 billion for rental assistance for low-income households
  • $75 billion to help homeowners pay their mortgages, property taxes or utilities
  • $25 billion to help the Postal Service survive a steep drop off in revenue.

“Some of the members say let’s take a pause,” Pelosi said on the House floor. “Do you think this virus is taking a pause? Do you think that the rent takes a pause? Do you think that putting food on the table – or the hunger that comes if you can’t – takes a pause?”

The proposed second stimulus payment in the HEROES Act is larger than the first stimulus check under the CARES Act.

But it is a one-time payment, and therefore is far less generous that several other Democratic proposals by Senator Bernie Sanders and members of the progressive caucus. They wanted payments of $2,000 and even $10,000 every week, depending on family size, for the duration of the pandemic. In fact, one of the proposals requested payments for a year after the pandemic.

Those bills never came up for a vote, causing some progressive backlash against Pelosi. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Pramila Jayapal proposed a bill in April that would have ensured workers receive 100% of their salaries up to $100,000 and provided businesses with funding to cover “essential” expenses such as rent. She was the only progressive member to vote against Pelosi’s bill, saying it didn’t go far enough.

Still, it’s a big, first step. Here’s a closer look at the key points:

  • Stimulus payment – $1,200 for individuals and dependents (Up to $6,000 for families)
  • Payment duration – One-time payment
  • Eligibility – Eligibility would be based on the same income limits as the CARES Act ($75,000 for single filers; $150,000 for married couples filing jointly; $112,500 for heads of households.
  • Payment distribution – Same as the CARES Act. Payments would be distributed through direct deposit or paper check.
  • Cost – $3 trillion.
  • Who introduced the bill? – House Democrats
  • Will it pass? – No, not in its current form. But it puts the ball in the Republicans court, the first step in a massive, trillion-dollar COVID-19 relief bill that likely will pass sometime this summer, and include a second stimulus check.

HOW TO KNOW WHEN YOUR PHONE HAS BEEN HACKED

by Natasha Stokes on May 01, 2019

Techlicious editors independently review products. To help support our mission, we may earn affiliate commissions from links contained on this page.

From email to banking, our smartphones are the main hub of our online lives. No wonder that smartphones are starting to stack up to computers as common targets for online hackers.

Security researchers recently revealed one attack campaign that released malicious Android apps that were nearly identical to legitimate secure messaging programs, including WhatsApp and Signal, tricking thousands of people in nearly 20 countries into installing it. These apps were downloaded via a website called Secure Android, and once installed, gave hackers access to photos, location information, audio capture, and message contents. According to EFF Staff Technology Cooper Quentin, of note is that the malware did not involve a sophisticated software exploit, but instead only required “application permissions that users themselves granted when they downloaded the apps, not realizing that they contained malware.”

Malware is often downloaded from non-official sources, including phishing links sent via email or message, as well as malicious websites such as the Secure Android site mentioned above. (While security experts recommend always downloading from official app stores – like the Apple App Store or Google Play – some countries are unable to access certain apps from these sources, for example, secure messaging apps that would allow people to communicate secretly.

Across the board, mobile malware has been on the riseup – in part due to an increase in political spies trying to break into the devices of persons of interest. Once this malware is online, other criminals are able to exploit compromised devices too. Malware can include spyware that monitors a device’s content, programs that harness a device’s internet bandwidth for use in a botnet to send spam, or phishing screens that steal a user’s logins when entered into a compromised, legitimate app.

Then there are the commercial spy apps that require physical access to download to a phone – often done by those well-known to the victim such as a partner or parent – and which can monitor everything that occurs on the device.

Not sure if you may have been hacked? We spoke to Josh Galindo, director of training at uBreakiFix, about how to tell a smartphone might have been compromised. And, we explore the seven ways your phone can be hacked and the steps you can take to protect yourself.

6 Signs your phone may have been hacked

1. Noticeable decrease in battery life

While a phone’s battery life inevitably decreases over time, a smartphone that has been compromised by malware may start to display a significantly decreased lifespan. This is because the malware – or spy app – may be using up phone resources to scan the device and transmit the information back to a criminal server.

(That said, simple everyday use can equally deplete a phone’s lifespan. Check if that’s the case by running through these steps for improving your Android or iPhone battery life.

2. Sluggish performance

Do you find your phone frequently freezing, or certain applications crashing? This could be down to malware that is overloading the phone’s resources or clashing with other applications.

You may also experience continued running of applications despite efforts to close them, or even have the phone itself crash and/or restart repeatedly.

(As with reduced battery life, many factors could contribute to a slower phone – essentially, its everyday use, so first try deep cleaning your Android or iPhone.)

3. High data usage

Another sign of a compromised phone is an unusually high data bill at the end of the month, which can come from malware or spy apps running in the background, sending information back to its server.

4. Outgoing calls or texts you didn’t send

If you’re seeing lists of calls or texts to numbers you don’t know, be wary – these could be premium-rate numbers that malware is forcing your phone to contact; the proceeds of which land in the cyber-crim’s wallet. In this case, check your phone bill for any costs you don’t recognise.

5. Mystery pop-ups

While not all pop-ups mean your phone has been hacked, constant pop-up alerts could indicate that your phone has been infected with adware, a form of malware that forces devices to view certain pages that drive revenue through clicks. Even if a pop-up isn’t the result of a compromised phone, many may be phishing links that attempt to get users to type in sensitive info – or download more malware. The vast majority of such pop-ups can be neutralised simply by shutting the window – though be sure you’re clicking the right X, as many are designed to shunt users towards clicking an area that instead opens up the target, sometimes malicious, site.

6. Unusual activity on any accounts linked to the device

If a hacker has access to your phone, they also have access to its accounts – from social media to email to various lifestyle or productivity apps. This could reveal itself in activity on your accounts, such as resetting a password, sending emails, marking unread emails that you don’t remember reading, or signing up for new accounts whose verification emails land in your inbox.

In this case, you could be at risk for identity fraud, where criminals open new accounts or lines of credit in your name, using information taken from your breached accounts. It’s a good idea to change your passwords – without updating them on your phone – before running a security sweep on your phone itself.

SOS steps

If you’ve experienced any of these symptoms of a hacked smartphone, the best first step is to download a mobile security app.

For Android, we like Avast, which not only scans for malware but offers a call blocker, firewall, VPN, and a feature to request a PIN every time certain apps are used – preventing malware from opening sensitive apps such as your online banking.

iPhones may be less prone to hacks, but they aren’t totally immune. Lookout for iOS flags apps that are acting maliciously, potentially dangerous Wi-Fi networks,  and if the iPhone has been jailbroken (which increases its risk for hacking). It’s free, with $9.99/month for identity protection, including alerts of logins being exposed.

Who would hack your phone?

By now, government spying is such a common refrain that we may have become desensitized to the notion that the NSA taps our phone calls or the FBI can hack our computers whenever it wants. Yet there are other technological means – and motives – for hackers, criminals and even the people we know, such as a spouse or employer, to hack into our phones and invade our privacy.

7 ways your phone can be hacked

From targeted breaches and vendetta-fueled snooping to opportunistic land grabs for the data of the unsuspecting, here are seven ways someone could be spying on your cell phone – and what you can do about it.

1. Spy apps

There is a glut of phone monitoring apps designed to covertly track someone’s location and snoop on their communications. Many are advertised to suspicious partners or distrustful employers, but still more are marketed as a legitimate tool for safety-concerned parents to keep tabs on their kids. Such apps can be used to remotely view text messages, emails, internet history, and photos; log phone calls and GPS locations; some may even hijack the phone’s mic to record conversations made in person. Basically, almost anything a hacker could possible want to do with your phone, these apps would allow.

And this isn’t just empty rhetoric. When we studied cell phone spying apps back in 2013, we found they could do everything they promised. Worse, they were easy for anyone to install, and the person who was being spied on would be none the wiser that there every move was being tracked.

“There aren’t too many indicators of a hidden spy app – you might see more internet traffic on your bill, or your battery life may be shorter than usual because the app is reporting back to a third-party,” says Chester Wisniewski, principal research scientist at security firm Sophos.

Likelihood

Spy apps are available on Google Play, as well as non-official stores for iOS and Android apps, making it pretty easy for anyone with access to your phone (and a motive) to download one.

How to protect yourself

  • Since installing spy apps require physical access to your device, putting a passcode on your phone greatly reduces the chances of someone being able to access your phone in the first place. And since spy apps are often installed by someone close to you (think spouse or significant other), pick a code that won’t be guessed by anyone else.
  • Go through your apps list for ones you don’t recognize.
  • Don’t jailbreak your iPhone. “If a device isn’t jailbroken, all apps show up,” says Wisniewski. “If it is jailbroken, spy apps are able to hide deep in the device, and whether security software can find it depends on the sophistication of the spy app [because security software scans for known malware].”
  • For iPhones, ensuring you phone isn’t jailbroken also prevents anyone from downloading a spy app to your phone, since such software – which tampers with system-level functions – doesn’t make it onto the App Store.
  • Download a mobile security app. For Android, we like Avast and for iOS, we recommend Lookout for iOS.

2. Phishing by message

Whether it’s a text claiming to be from your financial institution, or a friend exhorting you to check out this photo of you last night, SMSes containing deceptive links that aim to scrape sensitive information (otherwise known as phishing or “smishing”) continue to make the rounds.

Android phones may also fall prey to messages with links to download malicious apps. (The same scam isn’t prevalent for iPhones, which are commonly non-jailbroken and therefore can’t download apps from anywhere except the App Store.)

Such malicious apps may expose a user’s phone data, or contain a phishing overlay designed to steal login information from targeted apps – for example, a user’s bank or email app.

Likelihood

Quite likely. Though people have learned to be skeptical of emails asking them to “click to see this funny video!”, security lab Kaspersky notes that they tend to be less wary on their phones.

How to protect yourself

  • Keep in mind how you usually verify your identity with various accounts – for example, your bank will never ask you to input your full password or PIN.
  • Avoid clicking links from numbers you don’t know, or in curiously vague messages from friends, especially if you can’t see the full URL.
  • If you do click on the link and end up downloading an app, your Android phone should notify you. Delete the app and/or run a mobile security scan.

3. SS7 global phone network vulnerability

A communication protocol for mobile networks across the world, Signalling System No 7 (SS7), has a vulnerability that lets hackers spy on text messages, phone calls and locations, armed only with someone’s mobile phone number. An added concern is that text message is a common means to receive two-factor authentication codes from, say, email services or financial institutions – if these are intercepted, an enterprising hacker could access protected accounts, wrecking financial and personal havoc.

According to security researcher Karsten Nohl, law enforcement and intelligence agencies use the exploit to intercept cell phone data, and hence don’t necessarily have great incentive to seeing that it gets patched.

Likelihood

Extremely unlikely, unless you’re a political leader, CEO or other person whose communications could hold high worth for criminals. Journalists or dissidents travelling in politically restless countries may be at an elevated risk for phone tapping.

How to protect yourself

  • Use an end-to-end encrypted message service that works over the internet (thus bypassing the SS7 protocol), says Wisniewski. WhatsApp (free, iOS/Android), Signal (free, iOS/Android) and Wickr Me (free, iOS/Android) all encrypt messages and calls, preventing anyone from intercepting or interfering with your communications.
  • Be aware that if you are in a potentially targeted group your phone conversations could be monitored and act accordingly.

4. Snooping via open Wi-Fi networks

Thought that password-free Wi-Fi network with full signal bars was too good to be true? It might just be. Eavesdroppers on an unsecured Wi-Fi network can view all its unencrypted traffic. And nefarious public hotspots can redirect you to lookalike banking or email sites designed to capture your username and password. And it’s not necessarily a shifty manager of the establishment you’re frequenting. For example, someone physically across the road from a popular coffee chain could set up a login-free Wi-Fi network named after the café, in hopes of catching useful login details for sale or identity theft.

Likelihood

Any tech-savvy person could potentially download the necessary software to intercept and analyze Wi-Fi traffic – including your neighbor having a laugh at your expense (you weren’t browsing NSFW websites again, were you?).

How to protect yourself

  • Only use secured networks where all traffic is encrypted by default during transmission to prevent others from snooping on your Wi-Fi signal.
  • Download a VPN app to encrypt your smartphone traffic. ExpressVPN (Android/iOS from $6.67/month) is a great all-round choice that offers multi-device protection, for your tablet and laptop for example.
  • If you must connect to a public network and don’t have a VPN app, avoid entering in login details for banking sites or email. If you can’t avoid it, ensure the URL in your browser address bar is the correct one. And never enter private information unless you have a secure connection to the other site (look for “https” in the URL and a green lock icon in the address bar).

5. Unauthorized access to iCloud or Google account

Hacked iCloud and Google accounts offer access to an astounding amount of information backed up from your smartphone – photos, phonebooks, current location, messages, call logs and in the case of the iCloud Keychain, saved passwords to email accounts, browsers and other apps. And there are spyware sellers out there who specifically market their products against these vulnerabilities.

Online criminals may not find much value in the photos of regular folk – unlike nude pictures of celebrities that are quickly leaked– but they know the owners of the photos do, says Wisniewski, which can lead to accounts and their content being held digitally hostage unless victims pay a ransom.

Additionally, a cracked Google account means a cracked Gmail, the primary email for many users.

Having access to a primary email can lead to domino-effect hacking of all the accounts that email is linked to – from your Facebook account to your mobile carrier account, paving the way for a depth of identity theft that would seriously compromise your credit.

Likelihood

“This is a big risk. All an attacker needs is an email address; not access to the phone, nor the phone number,” Wisniewski says. If you happen to use your name in your email address, your primary email address to sign up for iCloud/Google, and a weak password that incorporates personally identifiable information, it wouldn’t be difficult for a hacker who can easily glean such information from social networks or search engines.

How to protect yourself

  • Create a strong password for these key accounts (and as always, your email).
  • Enable login notifications so you’re aware of sign-ins from new computers or locations.
  • Enable two-factor authentication so that even if someone discovers your password they can’t access your account without access to your phone.
  • To prevent someone resetting your password, lie when setting up password security questions. You would be amazed how many security questions rely on information that is easily available on the Internet or is widely known by your family and friends.

6. Malicious charging stations

Well-chosen for a time when smartphones barely last the day and Google is the main way to not get lost, this hack leverages our ubiquitous need for juicing our phone battery, malware be damned. Malicious charging stations – including malware-loaded computers – take advantage of the fact that standard USB cables transfer data as well as charge battery. Older Android phones may even automatically mount the hard drive upon connection to any computer, exposing its data to an unscrupulous owner.

Security researchers have also shown it’s possible to hijack the video-out feature on most recent phones so that when plugged into a malicious charge hub, a hacker can monitor every keystroke, including passwords and sensitive data.

Likelihood

Low. There are no widely known instances of hackers exploiting the video-out function, while newer Android phones ask for permission to load their hard drive when plugged into a new computer; iPhones request a PIN. However, new vulnerabilities may be discovered.

How to protect yourself

  • Don’t plug into unknown devices; bring a wall charger. You might want to invest in a charge-only USB cable like PortaPow ($6.99 on Amazon)
  • If a public computer is your only option to revive a dead battery, select the “Charge only” option (Android phones) if you get a pop-up when you plug in, or deny access from the other computer (iPhone).

7. FBI’s StingRay (and other fake cellular towers)

An ongoing initiative by the FBI to tap phones in the course of criminal investigations (or indeed, peaceful protests) involves the use of cellular surveillance devices (the eponymous StingRays) that mimic bona fide network towers.

StingRays, and similar pretender wireless carrier towers, force nearby cell phones to drop their existing carrier connection to connect to the StingRay instead, allowing the device’s operators to monitor calls and texts made by these phones, their movements, and the numbers of who they text and call.

As StingRays have a radius of about 1km, an attempt to monitor a suspect’s phone in a crowded city center could amount to tens of thousands of phones being tapped.

Until late 2015, warrants weren’t required for StingRay-enabled cellphone tracking; currently, around a dozen states outlaw the use of eavesdropping tech unless in criminal investigations, yet many agencies don’t obtain warrants for their use.

Likelihood

While the average citizen isn’t the target of a StingRay operation, it’s impossible to know what is done with extraneous data captured from non-targets, thanks to tight-lipped federal agencies.

How to protect yourself

  • Use encrypted messaging and voice call apps, particularly if you enter a situation that could be of government interest, such as a protest. Signal (free, iOS/Android) and Wickr Me (free, iOS/Android) both encrypt messages and calls, preventing anyone from intercepting or interfering with your communications. Most encryption in use today isn’t breakable, says Wisniewski, and a single phone call would take 10-15 years to decrypt.

“The challenging thing is, what the police have legal power to do, hackers can do the same,” Wisniewski says. “We’re no longer in the realm of technology that costs millions and which only the military have access to. Individuals with intent to interfere with communications have the ability to do so.”

From security insiders to less tech-savvy folk, many are already moving away from traditional, unencrypted communications – and perhaps in several years, it’ll be unthinkable that we ever allowed our private conversations and information to fly through the ether unprotected.