Six internet security apps to keep you safe from mobile malware, phone theft and on-the-go threats
If you thought your smartphone was safe from malware, it might be time you thought again. In the last year alone, several infected apps were able to infiltrate the Google Play store, including viruses that could steal SMS messages and contact lists or deliver screenshots, audio files and WhatsApp data to a cybercriminal halfway around the world. We’ve even seen apps posing as tracking tools but delivering ransomware attacks to Android users. Android phones might be pocket-sized, but they’re still powerful computers, and they still need protection.
That’s where mobile antivirus or internet security apps come in, identifying malicious behaviour and shutting down the apps and processes involved. What’s more, these apps go beyond stopping malware, with features designed to help you if your phone is lost or stolen, features to protect you when you’re browsing and tools that can protect specific apps from being opened without a PIN code. Although some of these additional features only become available with a paid subscription, you can get excellent base-level protection for free. Here’s a rundown of our favourite Android antivirus apps, complete with real-world malware-detection scores from av-test.org.
How to choose the best Android antivirus for you
The most common way to pick up malware on your smartphone or tablet is to “sideload” software. That is to install apps via APK files downloaded from locations other than the Google Play store. When you do this, you have no way of knowing what’s inside the code you’re installing. Most antivirus apps will scan new software as soon as it’s installed on your phone and warn you immediately if it’s recognised as malicious. The same applies to installations from Google Play; in principle they should be more trustworthy, but there are still plenty of instances of viruses being distributed via Google’s own app store.
As well as on-installation scanning, many antivirus apps will also carry out real-time scanning, to keep an eye on software as it runs. Behavioural detection is another feature that can keep you safe, by alerting you when an app – even one that hasn’t thrown up any security flags – is doing something that could be dodgy. Finally, most Android antivirus apps will carry out periodic or on-demand scans of your whole phone, including previously downloaded files. This can warn you if, for example, you’ve downloaded a file that could be harmful if you were to launch it. These combined measures make it much harder for malware to sink its teeth into your smartphone.
What can I do to reduce the risk?
You can do your bit by keeping an eye on what permissions your installed apps are requesting: if a simple game is saying it needs to be able to read your email and make phone calls, that’s a red flag. Some apps, such as Bitdefender Mobile Security & Antivirus, will automatically audit permissions on your phone and warn you which apps have the potential to wreak havoc.
As well as checking the software on your phone, most Android security apps now also offer protection against malicious websites; these might try to trick you into downloading malware, or they might be used in “phishing” attacks that imitate banking sites and try to con you into entering your personal details and passwords. Such attacks can be particularly effective on mobile platforms, because you can’t always see at a glance whether the URL in a link is pointing to a legitimate banking server, or recognise whether the overall page design isn’t quite right. The security app can check the URL and spot if it leads anywhere fishy, or indeed, ‘phishy’.
What if I lose my phone or it gets stolen?
Many security apps also add value with features designed to help you if you lose your phone or have it snatched. You can often PIN-protect applications and settings, so that even if someone manages to unlock your phone, they can’t hack your accounts or make phone calls without knowing your secret code. (This is doubly helpful if you have little ones who like to borrow your phone to play games.) Better still, you may find anti-theft features that can track down the location of a stolen phone and silently report it back to you via the web console.
To be fair, you can also do this via Android’s built-in Find My Device setting and the Find My Device website. You can even lock and erase a missing device remotely. However, the security app’s suites often go a step or two further: you can silently capture a photo of whoever’s using the phone, to identify the thief, or receive a warning if the SIM is replaced, so you know if someone’s trying to claim your phone as their own.
The best antivirus apps for Android
1. McAfee Mobile Security: Antivirus, Wi-Fi VPN and Anti-Theft – effective free protection with expensive extras
Price: Free; Premium, £2/mth
We used to love McAfee’s Antivirus package because, while there was a pricey Premium version, the core features you actually wanted were available for free. Sadly, that’s no longer the case as the App Lock, Kids Mode and Safe Web features have been rolled into the paid-for version, along with media backup and a bundled VPN with 256-bit encryption.
Is this a dealbreaker? Not necessarily. You still get full antivirus protection, with both quick- and deep-scan options, along with some excellent anti-theft features. You can set the app to save your device’s location when the battery gets low or set it to take photos and add the location of anyone who tries to break into the device. You can also lock the SIM card and turn on an incredibly noisy alarm – just the thing to make a smartphone-nicking thief think twice. What’s more, McAfee still throws in a tool to check your Wi-Fi connection for potential risks and a memory-optimisation feature to free up RAM being misused by background apps.
Most importantly, it’s an easy-to-use and very effective security app with some features available from a screen-edge window or widget. In AV-Test’s November 2018 results, it detected 99.8% of the test malware and 100% of malware discovered in the past four weeks – a cracking effort. At £2 a month, the Premium features seem overpriced, but the free version offers a solid basic level of security.
2. Bitdefender Mobile Security and Antivirus: Great security at a modest price
There’s no free version of Bitdefender’s app, but at £10 per year it won’t break the bank. What’s more, that tenner buys you a solid set of features, including a built-in VPN with 200MB of data – which should be fine for using shopping and banking apps – plus an App Lock to PIN-protect your more sensitive apps and web protection to guard you against phishing sites and malware. Bitdefender also offers some smart features, such as an App Lock setting that drops the locks if you’re on a trusted Wi-Fi connection, and an Account Privacy feature that can tell you whether your email or social media accounts have turned up in any known high-profile data breaches. The Wi-Fi protection features aren’t the most comprehensive, but you do get a warning if you connect to open networks. Throw in some anti-theft tools – including remote alerts and a setting that snaps photos on a failed unlock – and overall you get a lot for the money.
There’s also nothing cheap about the protection. AV-Test’s November 2018 results have Bitdefender finding 100% of the test malware in real-time and discovering every last sample of the malware released in the previous four weeks.
3. Kaspersky Internet Security for Android: Good free security that gets even better when you pay
Price: Free; Premium, £10/yr
Most antivirus companies have to walk a fine line between delivering a decent free product and making sure they hold enough good stuff back to make it worth your while shelling out the pounds. Kaspersky doesn’t quite get the balance perfect – we’d like to see real-time protection in the free version – but you do get on-demand scans, virus cleaning and anti-theft features gratis, and they’re very good. Kaspersky detected 100% of the latest Android malware using scans and 99.9% using real-time protection. Meanwhile, its anti-theft features will take mugshots and send messages and alarms from the My Kaspersky portal. They’re effective and easy to use.
Pay up the very reasonable £10 and you get a bunch of other goodies, including an app-lock for protecting key apps with a pin code, anti-phishing link checks and call and text-filtering features, allowing you to block specific contacts or simply callers outside your contacts list. Real-time protection monitors background activity on a continuous basis, and you can set whether you want to check apps just on installation or whether you want to monitor actions on files afterwards. Kaspersky also packs in contact-privacy protection, where you can hide specific contacts’ info behind a PIN code. While Bitdefender comes slightly ahead on anti-malware protection, Kaspersky wins on features – and it’s well worth paying for those extras.
4. Norton Security and Antivirus: Effective protection for all your devices
Price: £14.49/yr; 5 devices, £30/yr
Norton’s app is relatively expensive, coming in at £14.49 a year, but it arguably makes more sense if you opt for the Deluxe package, which covers up to five PCs and android or iOS devices through a single subscription. The Android app itself is as slick and user-friendly as you’d expect from Norton. We particularly like the App Advisor feature, which runs through your apps and warns you not just of security risks, but privacy risks as well. It’ll even tell you when apps are consuming too many resources or running down your battery with unnecessary background activity.
Norton also covers the basics well. Its Wi-Fi security feature checks for all kinds of intrusion when you connect to a public network, helping you fend off those who might spoof a legitimate network to try to steal your personal data. Web protection is solid, warding you away from fraudulent sites that might do the same. And Norton also has strong anti-theft features, including all the wipe, photo-snapping and remote-alarm features you’ll find in rival apps. There’s no built-in app-lock, but Norton links to the firm’s own free App Lock app. It’s the same deal with cleanup and optimisation tools.
Norton tries a little too hard to upsell you with additional services and features, but it offers protection where it counts. AV-Test’s latest results saw it shrug off 100% of the test malware in real-time protection and achieve the same when detecting malware discovered in the past four weeks. For some users, the brand and the easy-to-use interface will more than justify the £15 annual fee. If not, it’s still good value if you want one package across all your PCs and devices.
5. Sophos Mobile Security: Superb security for enthusiasts and small business
If you’re happy with a business focus and a slightly dry, technical feel, then Sophos Mobile Security has a lot to offer. For a start, it’s free, yet contains no annoying ads or irritating upsell prompts. What’s more, it’s surprisingly feature-packed. Some of the tools mirror what you’ll find in any good antivirus app, including a web-browser filter for blocking dodgy pages, a Link Checker that watches for malicious content lurking behind a link, and app protection via a password-protected lock, fingerprint or PIN. Some of these features even include useful built-in help, so that you can make sure links you open in Gmail are checked before they fire up in your browser.
Sophos scores extra points for useful Wi-Fi security features, not to mention call-blocking features that allow you to set conditions for when to block a call, covering numbers that aren’t in your contacts list or those with a hidden caller ID. The Loss and Theft tools don’t take snaps of thieves but all the remote alarm, lock and wipe features are included, and the app has a built-in Authenticator function to use with business apps that use multi-factor authentication. Dedicated Authenticator apps cover a wider range out of the box, though.
None of this would count if security was second-rate, but Sophos has a history of perfect scores in AV-Test’s Android testing, and it didn’t drop below 100% in the most recent tests. You don’t get 24/7 real-time protection, but Sophos checks apps on installation and will scan your device periodically and on demand, through a malware database that updates daily. That makes it a fantastic free security tool for business users – or for anyone looking for rock-solid security for their phone or tablet.
6. Trend Micro Mobile Security and Antivirus: A pricey but feature-packed app
Trend Micro’s app comes with a fairly whopping £20 annual price tag, but does its best to justify it through a shed-load of security features. These include a PayGuard Mobile tool that inspects banking and home shopping apps for potential risks, a Safe Surfing feature to block malicious website and a Wi-Fi checker that scans networks for suspicious interference. It’s also strong on bonus features, particularly its parental controls and optimisation tools. These perform the usual tricks to reduce memory consumption and boost battery life, but have a special Just A Phone setting that will turn off all but the basic, core features and connections during a specified period, for example, while you’re usually asleep.
Nor has Trend stinted on anti-theft features. You can find your device on Google Maps, lock the SIM card or lock and/or wipe the phone remotely, and it’s easy to set this up so that thieves can’t work around this just by uninstalling the Trend Micro app itself.
All these features are impressively easy to use, and we like the way the app handles proactive security advice, telling you what needs fixing and why, so that you can see for yourself whether you agree. Most importantly though, this app provides excellent antivirus protection; with 100% scores across both sets of AV-Test’s antivirus benchmarks, you can feel confident that nothing nasty’s getting through.