There’s a perfect storm that could cause problems for South Florida consumers. Our accelerated use of smart phones and mobile computers (tablets) has led to some of the highest identity-theft rates in the country.
As it turns out, some of the most popular mobile apps that could be in your phone or portable devices could potentially track your every move and reveal your most sensitive personal and financial data to others.
Computers, tablets and smart phones are an increasingly important part of our lives. We use them at home, school and on the road. And there is a dizzying array of apps for them. Many are free.
However my investigations found that in many cases, those “harmless looking apps” like the Brightest Flashlight application for smart phones, could be collecting personal data and track your every move without you even knowing it.
We checked it out with local Cyber-Safety expert Mike Scheidell of Security Privateers.
“Yes, it can track you within 15 feet,” he warns.“It’s got your address… your exact address. You go home, and as soon as you turn the flashlight on it knows exactly where you are and where you live. They want to know where you are so they can target advertising to you and sell that information.”
That worries some local smart phone users.
“It’s horrible,” said Sandra Diaz of Doral. “Someone is spying on us and we don’t even know who is there.”
Paul Gobitas is a Technology Specialist from Peru. “They can access your personal information; they can steal your identity,” he said. “If they are smart enough and they’re targeting you, they could access your company files and your company strategies.
They could access very, very important, confidential information.
I asked him if it was happening today.
“Absolutely,” he replied. Doral businessman Alan Orozzo’s has friends who had their identities stolen. He doesn’t use free apps anymore and doesn’t use any software he hasn’t checked out completely. He said he has friends who have had bank accounts totally drained.
“It’s getting worse,” he said.
To find out exactly what some of the most popular apps are doing “behind the scenes,” we asked Mike Scheidell to check them out. Google Map is a popular location-finder. According to this app website run by Google:
“It allows the app to directly call phone numbers without your intervention. This may result in unexpected charges or calls.” “It’s right there on the screen but nobody reads that portion of it when they download the application because that portion is hidden when you download it,” Scheidell explained. “It could call 900 numbers or long distance. You don’t have the chance to decide which calls that specific application can make.”
Google’s disclosing that information now because just last year, it got hit with a $22.5 million fine by the Federal Trade Commission over alleged privacy violations.
Do you use the free music app Pandora? Scheidell found “It can read your phone status, are you on the phone, not on the phone; it can track you; it can read your contact information. If you’re a corporate customer, it can read all the dates.”
I asked if it can connect to a Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and transmit data without you knowing about it? Yes, he replied.
Linked-In also is a popular business-networking app.
“You can give them information about your birthday, you can give them information about your phone number. If you combine the information about your address and your birth date, this is information that can be used to compromise your bank credentials,” Scheidell explained.
A recent study by Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University identified 10 popular mobile apps capable of sharing your most sensitive personal information. They range from popular free games like Angry Birds, or background wallpapers, or even simple dictionaries.
Just about every app developer has its own privacy guidelines. Many say they do not disclose personal data to third parties without your permission. Still, most users enjoy free, unsecured Wi-Fi access that can be picked up by hackers.
A recent cyber-security study by Verizon found 44 million records were compromised last year. In 76 percent of the cases, hackers were able to get into open networks and pick off data.
“I would say it’s going to get worse,” Scheidell warns. “Everybody wants more things for free. And the applications and the advertisers and thieves are going to learn how to steal your information.”
Those legal user agreements most of us never read usually contain all the information about what an app can do, and what privacy rights you may give up to use it.
Watch Al Sunshine’s “4 Money Watch” reports Monday-Friday. You may find Al’s blog at www.cbsmiami.com.