Not sure how to tell if your phone has a virus? Mobile malware is on the rise, but by following a few simple steps it's easy to scan and remove viruses from Android phones and even iPhones. Learn how to stop pop-up ads and malicious Android apps in their tracks, as well as how to run a full phone virus scan.

Can phones get viruses?

Well, not in the traditional sense. Computer viruses are malicious programs that infect and corrupt your programs and files, disrupt your computer’s performance, and just generally wreak havoc on their electronic host. But what distinguishes viruses from other forms of malware is their ability to replicate, Agent Smith style. So far, self-replicating malware has not made its way onto Android phones or iPhones, meaning your phone can’t technically get a “virus” — this is just the go-to term most people use to explain any kind of malicious software.

Android malware comes in many forms, ranging from spyware, which gathers your personal data for third parties (often advertisers), to mobile ransomware, which holds your files hostage and demands a ransom in order for you to retrieve them. The story for iPhones is a bit different. Unlike Android, iPhone and iPad apps can only be downloaded through the official App Store. This prevents malicious software from infecting your device via fake apps.

Mobile apps are sandboxed

Apps for iOS are also “sandboxed”, meaning they can’t access data from other apps or break into your device’s operating system (OS). Android sandboxes its apps too, but their approach is less restrictive than iOS, allowing apps to obtain more control over the device. Additionally, iOS rolls out its updates to all devices simultaneously, whereas Android is still struggling with an update problem. Updates are important because they often contain fixes to bugs or vulnerabilities found in the OS. Android’s open source system and delayed rollout of updates are two major reasons why Android users should always use an antivirus, like AVG AntiVirus for Android, as an added layer of protection.

On the other hand, thanks to Apple’s safety precautions, it is extremely rare for an iPhone or iPad to become infected with malware. The exception is if the device is jailbroken, which allows iPhone and iPad users to download apps from sources other than the App Store, thus exposing them to potential threats.

How to tell if your phone has a “virus”

An infected mobile phone displaying popups and heating up

Malware, like viruses, is all about the stealth attack. It sneaks onto your phone like a thief in the night (or day, malware doesn’t discriminate), lying dormant until you unknowingly activate it, or quietly (usually) stealing your sensitive information right from under your nose. It’s up to you to be proactive and keep a lookout for symptoms that could indicate your device is infected.

1. Increased data usage

If you notice a sudden spike in data usage, this could be a sign that a virus is running background tasks on your device or trying to use the Internet to transmit information from your phone. (While you're at it, find out how to keep your data usage under control on mobile phones).

2. Excessive app crashing

Apps crash from time to time, but if your apps start crashing regularly for seemingly no reason, your phone could have a virus.

3. Adware pop-ups

Most pop-up ads are just annoying, not malicious. And the good news is that these can easily be blocked by using an ad block browser extension, or the free Opera Browser app, which comes with a built-in ad blocker. However, if you’re seeing pop-up ads on your Android or iPhone even when your browser is closed, these could be malicious pop-ups caused by malware trying to steal your data.

4. Phone bill higher than normal

Some malware strains attack by sending premium rate SMS messages from your phone, causing your phone bill to take a hit. Last year, Ztorg Trojans were found doing this, in addition to deleting incoming messages.

5. Unfamiliar apps

Again with the fake apps, if you notice an app on your phone that you don’t recall downloading, stay away! A common symptom of malware on Android phones, uninstall unfamiliar apps immediately.

6. Faster battery drain

Malware mischief can use up a lot of energy, which subsequently takes a toll on your Android or iPhone’s battery. If your battery is draining faster than usual, you shouldn’t rule out a virus as the cause.

7. Overheating

While the majority of reasons your phone is overheating normal and relatively harmless, it’s also possible that the cause is a malware infection.

Watch out for malicious apps

Downloading a malicious app is the most common way for Android malware to get on your device. Once there, it can execute a number of nefarious deeds that may compromise your online security.

One of the most common Android malware seen in recent years is Hummingbad. First detected in 2016, Hummingbad was initially spread through third-party app stores, though it eventually made its way onto the Google Play Store. It’s main purpose was to get users to click on fake mobile and web ads in order to generate revenue for the Chinese ad firm behind the attack, Yingmob. The malware also installed rootkits, giving the hackers total control over infected devices and allowing them to download malicious apps onto the device without owner consent.

And while iOS malware is much rarer, it isn’t nonexistent. In 2015, an iOS malware strain known as KeyRaider targeted devices that were using two types using jailbreak tweaks, which are software packages that let you use your iPhone or iPad for things not usually possible on iOS; in this case, the tweaks allowed users to download apps from the App Store and make in-app purchases without actually paying. KeyRaider was most notable for stealing user information from over 225,000 Apple accounts, including usernames, passwords, and purchasing information, as well as disabling unlocking functionalities for iPhones and iPads.

What malicious apps do on phones

Malware on mobile sending SMS, recording conversations, and collecting data

These are just a couple of examples of how mobile malware can turn your device into a living hell via adware, but don’t worry, there are many more! Other forms of malware have been known to

  • Subscribe phones to premium services or send premium SMS messages.
  • Record phone conversations and send them to hackers.
  • Collect your personal information, including your location via GPS, contact list, photos, email address, banking details, etc.
  • Take full control of your device through rooting.

How to remove a virus from an Android phone

If you notice any of the above symptoms on your device and suspect you might have a virus, there are a few different methods you can try to remove it.

Run a phone virus scan

Google Play is full of antivirus apps that you can use to scan for and remove a virus from your phone. Here’s how to download and run a virus scan using the free AVG AntiVirus for Android app, which scans apps and files for threats in real-time.

Step 1: Go to the Google Play Store and download and install AVG AntiVirus for Android

Step 2: Open the app and tap the Scan button

Step 3: Wait while the app scans and checks your apps and files for any malicious software

Step 4: If a threat is found, tap Resolve

Step 5: Uninstall the malicious app

Manually uninstall malicious apps

Step 1: Go into Safe Mode

Like Windows, going into Safe Mode on Android turns off access to all third-party apps to stop them from running. This is a great tool to help you identify the culprit behind your Android phone’s unusual behavior — if the problem goes away when your phone is in Safe Mode, then you know a malicious app is to blame. Safe Mode also enables you to use your phone normally, without any interference.

While many Android phones will prompt you to “Reboot to Safe Mode” after pressing and holding the “Power off” button, others may require slightly more complex steps. If done correctly, you should see the words “Safe Mode” at the bottom of your phone’s screen once it turns on.

Step 2: Identify the malicious app

Open your Settings and choose the “Manage apps” tab (or a similar variation). Go to the “Downloaded” tab and look for any apps that seem suspicious — for instance, apps you don’t remember downloading or that shouldn’t be running on your device. Maybe an app you downloaded around the time your phone started acting funky.

Step 3: Uninstall the malicious app

In most cases, you will simply be able to select the malicious app and tap the “Uninstall” button. But if the malware or virus feels like putting up a fight, you may discover the a greyed out “Uninstall” button, meaning it has acquired administrator access to your device. In this case, see Step 4.

Step 4: Remove administrator access

Go back into your Settings and look for “Security”. Tap “Device Administrators” and check to see if any malicious apps have access. If so, tap on the app and then “Deactivate” it. You can now uninstall the malicious app.

How to remove a virus from an iPhone

iPhone virus removal is a bit more straightforward, since the virus or malware can’t actually break into iOS. This is why most hackers go after software developer kits, which are then used to create apps — and the main reason behind why you shouldn’t jailbreak your iPhone and download apps from outside the App Store. If you suspect a particular app may be compromised (maybe your problems started after you downloaded it, or it’s redirecting you to web pages or the App Store without permission), you can try uninstalling it and seeing if that clears up the problem. If not, you have a few other options.

Clear history and data

This should help if you are experiencing pop-ups or “Error” messages in your Safari browser. Simply go to Settings and scroll down to the Safari tab. Then tap Clear History and Website Data.

Power off and restart your iPhone

Nothing tricky about this — simply hold down your iPhone’s power button, wait for the “slide to power off” slider to appear, then slide to turn it off. To restart your phone, hold down the power button once more and wait for the Apple logo to appear. Ta da!

Restore from an earlier backup

If the above methods don’t fix the problem, try restoring your phone from an earlier backup (suddenly appreciating those incessant ‘back up your phone’ reminders right now, aren’t you?). If your most recent backup isn’t malware-free, you can try earlier backups until you find one that is.

Restore as new device

This is a last resort scenario, but if all else fails, then you can completely wipe your device and start fresh. Do this by going to Settings >> General >> Reset >> Erase All Content and Settings. And just like that, you can rise from the ashes like the resilient phoenix you are.

Always keep your device protected

The best way to prevent a virus or other form of malware from infecting your phone is to revolt against technology and stop using a smartphone. No? Okay, then if you use an Android device, you better make sure you’re using a reliable antivirus app, such as AVG AntiVirus for Android, that can scan your apps and files for any threats that may try to compromise your device or personal information.

AVG AntiVirus for Android Free

As mentioned earlier, you should really be avoiding third-party app stores. Yes, malware does make its way onto Google Play from time to time, but this will still help Android users avoid the vast majority of threats. As for iOS users, reconsider jailbreaking your iPhone. It’s not worth putting your device at risk.

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