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Mobile phone hacking explained and what to do if it happens to you

Image of a mobile phone screen showing a pincode.

by Nikki Webb from The Cyber Helpline

Nowadays, perpetrators who stalk offline are using technology to assist their behaviours —for example, mobile phones, social media, computers, and geolocation tracking. This has been particularly true during the pandemic, when we’ve had to rely much more on mobile devices and technology, and stalkers have continued their behaviours using those same tools.

Tracking messages is just one way a stalker can use a device to monitor, intimidate, and control their victim.

Technology assisted stalking can be as nuanced as the abuser spoofing their number to bypass a list of blocked contacts and using social media posts to keep tabs on the victim’s interactions, or as sophisticated as tracking a car’s location throughout the day via GPS and installing apps to make smart-home devices run amok. The tactics vary widely.

When a stalker gains access to a phone, they can unassumingly squirm into every aspect of the victim’s digital life, from private messages to location history.

If someone is stalking or abusing you, you might be worried that they have access to your phone and/or that they may be tracking your location through your device.

To hack into a phone, a perpetrator will have used specific software or mobile apps known as “spyware” to monitor the accounts on the device and track the person’s location. Here are some things to know about how mobile phone hacking works and questions to ask yourself if you think someone may be tracking you.

How would spyware get on my phone in the first place?

“Spyware” refers to software that is used to track and monitor the device of a person. It is usually installed on a phone through one of two ways:

  • A phishing attack – that is, an email or text links that contain viruses and trick you into clicking on them by pretending to be something/someone else.
  • Physical access to your device.

In the first case, the abuser could send a link in an email that looks like they’re sharing an interesting website. But once you click on it, it would automatically install an app or software onto your device without your knowledge.

The second case requires the abuser to have access to the device’s passcode or PIN, which they could get by talking you into sharing it with them or even by watching you unlock your phone. They could also have bought the phone for you and installed tracking apps before giving you the device as a gift, for example.

Most of the apps used to track someone via a device are marketed as “remote access tools” to help parents or employers “manage” devices. However, often abusers use them to control and harass their victim.

How to know if you have a tracking app installed on your phone?

One of The Cyber Helpline’s number one tips for victims is to trust your instincts. If you believe that your partner/ex-partner or the person who is stalking you knows too much about you, it is entirely possible that they are monitoring your activities.

This seeming sixth sense about being stalked often doesn’t come from nowhere.

You should also consider other devices that the perpetrator could be using to stalk you. For example, some abusers have been found to put a tracker on their child’s phone and watches, enabling stalking. This way, they can see what time they stay up to and where they are at all times, etc.

This tactic can be used to not just monitor the child but also the mother. In recent years, there have been many cases where this has happened. Therefore, you should consider turning off location services on your child’s devices if you are worried that your partner/ex-partner may be monitoring your activities in this way.

I know I am being stalked through my phone, what can I do?

Before taking any action, it’s important to consider the risks and the safest way to regain control of your devices and your private information. Remember: your safety is always the priority.

Having a spyware-infected device while planning to leave an abusive partner, or taking a compromised device while making a getaway, opens up more risks and could compromise your safety. It is essential that you consider your physical and cyber security when planning how to leave the abuser.

Crucially, talking to other people, friends, family, and relevant authorities, and making a plan to get away is not something that should be done on a device that you suspect is being monitored, as this could put you in danger.

The Cyber Helpline has several guides available that can be of help and volunteers are available to discuss your options in further detail with you. You may also want to get in touch with your local domestic abuse or women’s services for emotional and practical support (including safety planning), and to find out any legal options you may have.

Reporting the crime

It is illegal to access someone’s accounts or devices without first getting permission. It is also illegal to use bugs, cameras, or trackers without consent.

In Scotland, you can report the situation to Police Scotland here. If you need further information or support, the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre has an advocacy support service that can help you understand the reporting process.

One last thing to say is that, when it comes to tech-enabled abuse, you should always trust your instincts. Make sure you document everything that happens and which has made you suspect that your phone has been hacked/compromised.

Below are some of our guides which give further advice, help and information:

You can also contact the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre for information about your rights if you are experiencing stalking, domestic abuse or any other form of gender-based violence in Scotland.

The Cyber Helpline is a free, confidential helpline for individuals who have been a victim of cyber crime. They help individuals understand, contain, recover and learn from cyber attacks by linking them with cyber security technology and experts who provide relevant advice and guidance. You can get advice from them through their online chatbot, guides and volunteer team here.

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