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How to find and remove spyware from your phone

iPhone and Android users alike are facing more sophisticated surveillance threats than ever before, and some may be close to home. Suspect you're being tracked? Here's what to do.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer
Aleksandr Zubkov/Getty Images

Spyware doesn't just impact today's PCs, it can end up on your mobile devices, too. 

Spyware designed for smartphones can disguise itself as a fake mobile application or transform a once-trustworthy app into a data stealer or Trojan. Similarly, a remote monitoring app promoted for parental use or work purposes could be abused to become a privacy invader rather than a legitimate service. 

Also: Is Microsoft Recall a 'privacy nightmare'? 7 reasons not to worry

Whatever the form, mobile spyware may steal your information, track your location, record your conversations, and more. Our guide will run through different forms of malicious software that could end up on your iOS or Android handset, the warning signs of infection, and how to remove such pestilence from your smartphone whenever it is possible to do so. We will also discuss stalkerware and other ways threats closer to home may spy on you -- and what you can do about it.

What is spyware?

Spyware comes in many forms, and it's useful to know the basic differences before you tackle the problem. 

Nuisanceware is often bundled with legitimate apps. It interrupts your web browsing with pop-ups, changes your homepage or search engine settings, and may also gather your browsing data to sell it to advertising agencies and networks. 

Although considered malvertising, nuisanceware is generally not dangerous or a threat to your core security. Instead, these malware packages are focused on illicit revenue generation by infecting machines and creating forced ad views or clicks.

Also: The best password managers you can buy

There's also standard mobile spyware. These generic forms of malware steal operating system and clipboard data and anything of potential value, such as cryptocurrency wallet data or account credentials. Spyware isn't always targeted and may be used in general phishing attacks. 

Spyware may land on your device through phishing, malicious email attachments, social media links, or fraudulent SMS messages.

Advanced spyware, sometimes also classified as stalkerware, is a step up from basic spyware. Unethical and sometimes dangerous, this malware is sometimes found on desktop systems, but it is now more commonly implanted on phones. 

Also: How to find out if an AirTag is tracking you

Spyware and stalkerware may be used for the following purposes:

  • To monitor emails, SMS, MMS messages, and other forms of communication sent and received
  • To intercept live calls to eavesdrop across standard telephone lines or Voice over IP (VoIP) applications
  • To record environmental noise
  • To hijack camera functions to take photos and videos
  • To screenshot mobile device activities and send them to a controller
  • To track victims via GPS
  • To hijack social media apps such as Facebook and WhatsApp
  • For keylogging, account compromise, and data theft

Stalkerware is typically used to spy on someone as an individual and watch what they do, say, and where they go. Stalkerware is commonly linked to cases of domestic abuse

Finally, there's government-grade commercial spywarePegasus is one of the most well-known variants, sold to governments as a tool for combating terrorism and for law enforcement purposes. Pegasus was ultimately found on smartphones belonging to journalists, activists, political dissidents, and lawyers. Unless you're part of a group of specific interest to ethically challenged governments, it's unlikely that commercial-grade spyware will impact you.

What are the warning signs of a spyware infection attempt?

There are several signs to watch for that might indicate you are being targeted by a spyware or stalkerware operator. 

Finding yourself the recipient of odd or unusual social media messages or emails might be part of a spyware infection attempt. You should delete these without clicking on any links or downloading any files. 

The same is true for SMS messages, which may contain links to trick you into unwittingly downloading malware. For example, you could receive an SMS failed delivery notice or payment 'request' masked to appear from a well-known service.

Also: What is ransomware? Everything you need to know and how to reduce your risk

To catch a victim unaware, phishing messages will lure you into clicking a link or executing software that hosts a spyware or stalkerware payload. If the malware is being loaded remotely, user interaction is required, and so these messages might try to panic you -- for example, by demanding payment to a tax office or bank, or by posing as a failed delivery notice. Messages could potentially use spoofed addresses from a contact you trust, too.

When it comes to stalkerware, initial infection messages may be more personal and tailored to the victim. Physical access or the victim's accidental installation of spyware is necessary. However, installing some variants of stalkerware can take mere moments.

If your phone goes missing or has been out of your possession for a time, and reappears with different settings or changes that you do not recognize, this may be an indicator that your device has been tampered with.

What are the typical signs that spyware is on my phone?

Depending on the type of mobile malware at hand, there are signs you can watch out for that may indicate your smartphone has been compromised. 

You may experience unexpected handset battery drain, overheating, and strange behavior from your handset's operating system or apps. Settings such as GPS and location functions may turn on and off unexpectedly, or you may experience random reboots and unexplained crashes. 

If you suddenly are using far more cellular data than normal, this could also indicate that information is being sent from your smartphone without your knowledge or that remote connections are active. In addition, another symptom could be that you are hearing unusual noises or distortion during phone calls, and although this could simply be down to poor reception, it may also be a sign of interception.

Also: The best VPN services of 2024: Expert tested and reviewed

You may also have trouble turning off your device completely.

Certain forms of spyware focused on fraudulent revenue generation may be able to secure enough permissions to impact your bank balance. If you are signed up for services or premium SMS plans and you know you didn't consent to them, this could be a sign that spyware is on your device. 

Keep an eye on your credit cards for any signs of suspicious payments. 

An important point to mention is that sometimes spyware or other forms of malicious software might end up on your device via an originally benign app. There have been cases of developers releasing a genuine, useful app in official repositories, such as a currency converter or weather app, and then -- after a large user base has been gathered -- the developers twist the app's functions through a software update. 

Previously, Google removed malicious apps from the Google Play Store that had been masquerading as Bluetooth utilities. These apps had been downloaded by over a million users and while the apps didn't appear malicious at first, within days, users were bombarded with ads and pop-ups.

Unfortunately, there's little that the average user can do if an app is updated with data stealing and other malicious functions. However, if you recently downloaded a mobile app and now your phone is displaying odd behavior, consider removing them and running a malware scan.

What other signs might I see on Android and iOS devices?

Surveillance software is becoming more sophisticated and can be difficult to detect. However, not all forms of spyware and stalkerware are invisible, and it is possible, in many cases, to find out if you are being monitored.


One telltale sign on an Android device is a setting that allows apps to be downloaded and installed outside of the official Google Play Store. 

If this setting is enabled, this may indicate tampering and jailbreaking without your consent. Not every form of spyware and stalkerware requires a jailbroken device, though.

This setting is found in most modern Android builds in Settings > Security > Allow unknown sources. (This varies depending on the device and vendor.) You can also check Apps > Menu > Special Access > Install unknown apps to see if anything appears that you do not recognize, but there is no guarantee that spyware will show up on the app list.

Some forms of spyware will also use generic names and icons to avoid detection. For example, they may appear to be useful utility apps such as calendars, calculators, utilities, or currency converters. If a process or app comes up on the app list that you are not familiar with, a quick search online may help you find out whether it is legitimate.


iOS devices that aren't jailbroken are generally harder to install malware on than Android handsets unless a spyware developer is exploiting for a zero-day or unpatched vulnerability. However, the same principles apply: with the right tool, exploit, or software, your device could be compromised either with physical access or remotely. You may be more susceptible to infection if you have not updated your iPhone's firmware to the latest version and you do not run frequent antivirus scans.

Both iOS and Android phones, however, will typically show some sign of a malware infection.

How can I remove spyware from my device?

By design, spyware and stalkerware are hard to detect and can be just as hard to remove. It is not impossible in most cases, but it may take some drastic steps on your part. Sometimes the last-resort option may be to abandon your device. 

When spyware is removed, especially in the case of stalkerware, some attackers will receive an alert warning them that the victim's device has been cleaned up. Should the flow of your information suddenly stop, this would be another clear sign to the attacker that the malicious software has been removed. 

Do not tamper with your device if you feel your physical safety may be in danger. Instead, reach out to the police and supporting agencies.

Now, here are some removal options:

  • Run a malware scan: There are mobile antivirus solutions available that can detect and remove spyware. This is the easiest solution available, but it may not be effective in every case. Cybersecurity vendors, including MalwarebytesAvast, and Bitdefender, all offer mobile spyware-scanning tools. This is the easiest option for run-of-the-mill infections.
  • Use a dedicated spyware removal tool: You can also try using software specifically designed to detect and remove spyware. However, be careful to download tools provided only by reputable firms and through official sources, as one of the most common ways to package malware is by disguising it as antivirus software.
  • Delete suspicious apps: Examine the list of apps installed on your handset and remove any apps you don't recognize. 
  • Check device administration: Found within advanced security settings, you can check to see if any suspicious apps have administration permission levels. If so, you can try to remove it, although this could mean you need to restore your handset to factory settings.
  • Reboot in Safe mode: Restarting your smartphone in Safe mode will prevent third-party software from operating. On Android handsets, you can usually do this by long-pressing the power off button and selecting Safe mode. This can allow you to safely uninstall apps -- but it is not a failsafe solution regarding advanced spyware variants.
  • Update your operating system: It may seem obvious, but when an operating system releases a new version, which often comes with security patches and upgrades, it can -- if you're lucky -- cause conflict and problems with spyware. Keep this updated.
  • If all else fails, factory reset... or junk it: Performing a factory reset and clean install on the device you believe is compromised may help eradicate some forms of spyware and stalkerware. However, make sure to back up important content first. On Android platforms, the reset option is usually found under Settings General Management > Reset > Factory Data Reset. On iOS, go to Settings > General > Transfer or Reset phone

Google's guide to factory resetting your device can be found here, and Apple has also provided instructions on its support website.

Unfortunately, some stalkerware services may survive factory resets. So, failing all of that, consider restoring to factory levels and then throwing your device away.

If you have found suspicious software on your handset, consider the following:

  • Change your passwords: If you suspect account compromise, change the passwords of every important account you have. Many of us have one or two central "hub" accounts, such as an email address linked to all of our other services. Remove access to any such hub services you use from a compromised device. For added security, consider changing your account passwords on a PC and forcing a logout on other devices. 
  • Creating a new email address: Known only to you, the new email becomes tethered to your main accounts. If stalkerware is involved, this should be an option you consider if it is safe. It can help you wrestle back control of your accounts in a discreet and quiet way without alerting anyone. 

What can I do about about advanced, commercial spyware?

Government-grade spyware can be more difficult to detect. However, as noted in a guide on Pegasus and other forms of commercial-grade malware published by Kaspersky, there are some actions you can take to mitigate the risk of being subject to such surveillance, based on current research and findings:

  • Reboots: Reboot your device daily to prevent persistence from taking hold. The majority of infections have appeared to be based on zero-day exploits with little persistence; therefore, rebooting can hamper attackers.
  • Disable iMessage and FaceTime (iOS): As features enabled by default, iMessage and FaceTime are attractive avenues for exploitation. A number of new Safari and iMessage exploits have been developed in recent years. 
  • Use an alternative browser other than Safari or default Chrome: Some exploits do not work well on alternatives such as Firefox Focus or the Tor Browser.
  • Use a trusted, paid VPN service and install an app that warns when your device has been jailbroken. Some AV apps will also perform this check.  
  • GrapheneOS: It is also recommended that individuals who suspect a Pegasus infection make use of a secondary device, preferably running the Android-based GrapheneOS, for secure communication. 

How do I keep spyware and stalkerware off my device in the first place?

Unfortunately, no mobile device is completely protected against the scourge of spyware. However, we have provided some tips below to mitigate the risk of future infections:

  • Protect your device physically: Your first line of defense is to maintain adequate physical controls. Modern smartphones allow you to set PIN codes and patterns or use biometrics, including fingerprints or retina scans, to prevent your handset from being physically tampered with. 
  • Update your operating system: When system updates are available, ensure you install them in a timely fashion. They contain security fixes and patches and are one of the most important defenses against malware.
  • Use antivirus software: Mobile antivirus solutions can detect and remove spyware. Running frequent scans will help protect your handset.
  • Only download apps from official sources: The majority of spyware and malware is found outside of Google Play and Apple's App Store, so be cautious about installing apps from third-party websites. 
  • Enable app security: Enable inbuilt scanners that check any new app installs. On Android, you can find this setting in Security and privacy > App security. 
  • Check permissions: You should monitor what permissions have been issued to what apps, and when. On Android, this can be found in Security and privacy > Permission manager. If you haven't used an app for a while that has extensive permissions, consider deleting it. If any apps appear to be more intrusive than they need to be, remove them.
  • Watch out for malicious links: Mobile malware is often spread through phishing and malicious links, which are spread through platforms including social media services. These links may urge you to download apps from outside of Google Play or the App Store and may be disguised as everything from antivirus software to streaming services.
  • Do not jailbreak your device: Jailbreaking not only voids your warranty but can also allow malicious apps and software to have a deep foothold in your operating system, which may make removal extremely difficult or impossible. 
  • Enable multi-factor authentication (MFA): When account activity and logins require further consent from a mobile device, this can also help protect individual accounts. (However, spyware may intercept the codes sent during 2FA protocols.)

What are Google and Apple doing to protect Android and iOS devices?

Google and Apple are generally quick to tackle malicious apps that manage to avoid the privacy and security protections imposed in their respective official app stores. 

In 2019, Google removed seven apps from the Play Store that were marketed as employee and child trackers. The tech giant took a dim view of their overreaching functions -- including GPS device tracking, access to SMS messages, theft of contact lists, and potentially the exposure of communication taking place in messaging applications. 

Since then, Google has banned stalkerware ads, and the firm's Threat Analysis Group is constantly publishing research on new commercial spyware strains and their potential targets. Google researchers frequently cover the privacy and security concerns posed by mobile spyware and they are the authors of investigative reports warning of the dangers of the commercial spyware industry.  

Also: How to use iPhone's Security Keys feature to protect your Apple ID

Apple has cracked down on parental control apps, citing privacy-invading functions as the reason for removal. The company offers its own parental device control service called Screen Time for parents who want to limit their child's device usage. Furthermore, the company does not allow sideloading -- that is, the installing of third-party apps from sources other than Apple's App Store, and is quick to remove any iOS apps that display privacy-eroding functionality.

In 2022, Apple revealed the details of a $10 million grant to research ways to combat state-sponsored spyware. Recently, the company issued an alert to iPhone users in 92 countries, warning them of remote, targeted attacks launched by spyware operators. 

Are parental control apps spyware?

There are cyberthreats around every corner online, and while children often want a smartphone and to be on social media at a young age, parents want to be able to monitor what they are viewing and who they are interacting with online in order to protect them. 

This is a responsible position to take in itself, but at their core, parental control apps are designed for surveillance.

The main issue is the capacity for abuse, twisting what may have been a product developed with good intentions into invasive software used for purposes that go beyond protecting a minor. Standalone parental control apps can be abused, and the permissions they require can be incredibly intrusive—not only for children but also for anyone's privacy. 

Also: The best parental control apps to keep your kids safe online

A balance between a right to privacy and protection has to be maintained, and it's a difficult tightrope to walk. With this in mind, both Apple and Google have introduced parental controls for Android devices, Chromebooks, iPhones, and iPads. These platforms focus on restricting screen time, locking and unlocking devices, and features such as permissions list management, restricting web content and app downloads, and purchase approvals. 

However, they are limited in scope and you may not be able to use them once a child reaches a certain age -- and at this point, you should consider, anyway, whether or not you should still monitor them so closely. 

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