While there are many benefits to the various smart devices that are used today, the personal data that is stored on smartphones leaves users vulnerable if they are hacked by cybercriminals.

Whether you have a bank app or you have downloaded important business documents onto your device, it's essential that you have a number of systems in place to protect your personal data.

In 2021, there were over 400,000 reported fraud and cybercrime in the UK, which cost a combined total of £3 billion. Of this, 14,000 reports were concerning email and social media hacking. Luckily, the chances that your phone will be hacked or victim to malicious software is reduced if you follow a few simple steps.

We've made this handy guide that gives you some of the best ways to secure your device, including how you can make a strong password and why you should always install updates on your device.

Many people rely on their mobile phones for a whole host of things, from taking photos of their lives to paying for their food in a restaurant. However, the amount of personal data that is stored on mobile phones makes them extremely appealing to hackers and cybercriminals.

Without mobile security, individuals and organisations are vulnerable to cyber attacks in the form of hacking, malicious software and data leakage. Cybercriminals can steal your personal data and also, listen in on private conversations or breach your bank account and steal your money.

Mobile security is essential to protect your personal information or your business if you own a work phone. There are a number of basic steps that you can follow to give you an added layer of protection to help prevent cybercriminals from accessing your device.

The following are some of the most common security threats that mobile phone users face:

  • Phishing - criminals send emails or direct messages that contain a malicious link or malware within an attachment. These types of links and attachments have also become more common on social media platforms
  • Data leakage - you may give an app permission to access various folders and data on your device. While the app may operate as it should, the application may also be mining data and sending them to third parties without your knowledge
  • Spyware - this can be installed onto your device if you click on a malicious advertisement on a website or by downloading a fake app. Cybercriminals may be able to listen in on your private conversations or access your camera

Below is a selection of ways to improve your phone's security and help prevent cyber attacks.

Lock your phone

If your phone is stolen, you want to ensure that the criminal cannot access your device and the private information that it contains. The phone's first defence line is a lock screen, whether it's a PIN, pattern or password. Some newer phones also have fingerprint scanners or face recognition to ensure that the phone's owner is the only one who can unlock the device.

You can choose how long your phone is idle before the lock activates. Ideally, you would select the shortest time possible so that your phone will lock automatically if you forget to lock it yourself when you leave your phone. This also has the added bonus of saving your battery because the screen display will turn off after the programmed time period.

Connect to secure Wi-Fi

Connecting to networks when you are out and about can be helpful. However, it is important to be wary of connecting to public Wi-Fi as the networks may not be secure. You should avoid online shopping when you are on a public Wi-Fi network or any other activities involving sending your bank details online. This is to prevent criminals from accessing your personal details if they manage to hack the public network.

There is no way to authenticate an unknown Wi-Fi hotspot, which means that you could be connecting to a scam network. Other users on a public network can also access what you are viewing on your screen and any usernames or passwords that are saved onto your device.

An alternative is mobile data, although you should check your phone plan before using this in case you are charged or exceed your given limit. 3G, 4G and 5G have in-built security to help protect your mobile device. Another alternative is to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network). This will give you a secure phone connection to a private server so that you aren't sharing it with other users on the public network. Your data will be safer because it is encrypted as it travels between servers. You can find different VPNs for iOS and Android phones.

Create a strong password

Some of the most common passwords feature names and numbers in simple sequences (such as 123456 or 'qwerty', which is the first six letters on a computer keyboard). These make your device easy to hack and leave your personal information vulnerable. Strong passwords contain a mix of numbers, letters and symbols. Ideally, they should be at least eight characters long, too, although you should try to make them as long as possible to make them harder to crack. Google advises that passwords should have 12 characters.

You should also have a different password or PIN for your phone's lock screen than the ones you use for other accounts. This is to prevent anyone from hacking into all of your accounts should they decipher your phone passcode. Banking apps tend to require passwords as default, although it's advisable to add passwords to as many of your apps and accounts as possible.

It can be tempting to save your usernames and passwords for your different accounts on your phone, but this can make it easier for criminals to access your personal data if they gain access to your phone. Click 'do not remember password' when you log into websites so that your information isn't stored.

Install anti-virus software

It's easy to accidentally click on a malicious link or download malware that can damage your device if you are caught off guard. Anti-virus software can help protect you against viruses that could slow down or crash your device. This type of software protection can also scan your files and incoming emails for viruses and delete them if they are found to be malicious.

You must allow your anti-virus software to issue updates to ensure that you are fully protected against evolving bugs on the internet. The software can regularly scan your device to check your files and messages. It's worth issuing a thorough scan every couple of weeks so that the software can do a comprehensive scan.

Install phone updates

Your mobile phone's operating system updates help you to receive the best experience. As with anti-virus software, it's important that you allow these updates on your device so that you have updated protection. The updates help to protect iOS and Android devices against emerging threats.

Mobile phone updates contain security patches that are designed to combat holes in the device's security that cybercriminals may try to exploit. By delaying these updates, you are preventing the patches from repairing the holes in your device's security and increasing the chance of your device getting hacked.

Do not root or jailbreak your device

Some individuals 'jailbreak' or 'root' their phones so that they access a wider variety of applications from app stores other than the official ones (such as the Google Play Store and Apple's App Store). However, this puts you at a higher risk of downloading malicious viruses. The apps on official app stores have been authenticated, but apps on unofficial app stores haven't been properly vetted and could therefore be used by cybercriminals to steal your information or damage your device.

Jailbreaking is often used on iPhones as they have strict settings when it comes to downloading apps. iOS users cannot download apps unless Apple has approved them, which is an incentive for device users to try and adapt their phone's settings so that they can access independent app stores.

When you jailbreak a device, you will stop receiving the regular updates that are usually given to your iOS or Android phone, which leaves you vulnerable to hackers. Although it's not strictly illegal, jailbreaking is considered a grey area and is covered under different laws in different countries.

Review your access permissions

Most smartphone users absent-mindedly click 'Accept' whenever a permissions box pops up on a webpage or app. The boxes often feature a lot of small text that seems irrelevant to what you are trying to view. However, you may be giving unnecessary permissions that allow the website or app to access your data and share it with third parties.

It's a good idea to review the access permissions that your apps have to check what information they are storing. You may want to change the permissions if it seems that an app has access to sensitive data or functions on your phone that you'd rather it didn't have. For example, some apps request access to your device's camera, microphone and location. If you say no to these permissions, then the app won't have access to these functions.

There are various reasons that apps may request these types of permissions. One of the most common reasons is to better understand you and your surroundings so that the app can offer you more targeted adverts. Although this can seem fairly innocent, it's better to manually alter permissions so that you are aware of which apps have access to what.

Encrypt your mobile device

Mobile devices hold a lot of data, including financial and personal information that could be at risk. One of the best ways to protect your data is to encrypt it. This means that your information will be stored in an unreadable form that hackers won't be able to make sense of.

You should be able to find your device's encryption settings in the security menu. Your phone may ask you to input your lock screen code before you can change the settings.

Enable 'Find My Device' feature

Most smartphones have security features that allow you to track your phone if it is lost or stolen. You may also be able to remotely lock your phone or erase your private data to stop anyone else from accessing it. These types of security apps might also be able to show you how much battery is remaining on your device and which Wi-Fi network (if any) it is connected to.

You will be able to log into your iOS or Android device manager from another device so that you can see where your phone is. Some apps also allow you to remotely play a loud alarm so that you can try and find the device if you are in close proximity.

There are a number of ways that you can keep your smartphone secure to stop your personal data from falling into the wrong hands. The most basic step is to lock your device so that it can only be opened by a password, PIN or pattern that you know. Some models also feature fingerprint and face recognition software which further protects your phone and makes sure that you alone can access the device.

You should also avoid using public Wi-Fi networks and check which permissions you have given to the apps that you downloaded. It's also essential to enable device updates so that your mobile phone is equipped to deal with the latest bugs and malware that cybercriminals are using.

It's also a good idea to create strong passwords that are unique to each of your accounts. Don't save your usernames or passwords, however, as this will give cybercriminals easy access to your personal data if they manage to hack into your phone. Make sure to download anti-virus software too, so that your phone is regularly scanned for hidden threats that could steal your information.