Earlier this year a reported 10 million smartphones were infected by malware, with an estimated $300,000 (c.£250,000) per month being made in fraudulent ad revenue from just one strain of malware. 

With mobile banking apps, integrated emails and even Amazon-style 'one-click' buying, a lot of personal information is stored on your mobile phone. Some believe that an unprotected phone will leave people susceptible to an array of malicious campaigns, and while it's hard to disagree, a lot of people argue that mobile antivirus is ineffective against cyber crimes, and conclude that there is no point in using one.

To make things clearer, we offer a guide to mobile antivirus, what it is, what it does and if it's needed.

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What is mobile malware?

Mobile malware is malicious software specifically designed to attack smartphones and mobile devices. Just like a PC, smartphones are also vulnerable to malicious campaigns and a wide range of viruses. Most people will have both work and personal emails integrated with their phone, leaving them open to spam emails and automatic malicious downloads, while internet browsing makes it easy for harmful content to enter the phone.

While Apple runs its own, closed operating system, meaning the iPhone is open to less malicious attacks, the Android platform is open source and for some, may be seen as more vulnerable.

On an open platform, it's easy to download apps (away from Google Play) that could contain malware or be updated post-installation with malware. In the latter case, smartphone users would not notice a change in the app, but could potentially put their personal data at risk.

Does mobile antivirus work? 

With mobile malware attacks on the up, it's no wonder that users are turning to antivirus apps to tackle the problem head on.

It sounds reasonable to download an antivirus app, like you would on a PC, and use your phone safe in the knowledge that nothing bad will happen. But that's not exactly true. What if those apps don't work? What if they create the illusion of safety but actually leave you open to potentially damaging malware campaigns?

Most antivirus tools will offer some level of data backup, remote wipe, GPS tracking and remote locking and while these features are probably better than none, if we look at desktop antivirus tools, you'll find that mobile ones fall very short. This is mainly because mobile applications tend not to include real-time document scanning or applications, or offer regular checking of applications that are downloaded.

One of the major drawbacks of mobile antivirus isn't centered on whether it works but on how it affects your phone. Desktop antivirus tools have been around for a long time, and have become lightweight, effective and almost a must on any PC or laptop. Mobile antivirus is a different story. Mobile antivirus can slow down your OS, become very clunky and in some cased frustrate users with constant notifications asking them to update or run various activities.

How to prevent mobile malware without antivirus

Even if you use a trusted mobile antivirus application on your smartphone, you'll still need to make sure you're keeping safe while using the external applications, the internet or even text messages on your phone.

To add an extra layer of security make sure you only download apps from credible places, namely Google Play or the Windows Store. This will cut out the possibility of malware being pushed out on your phone, even if you don't open or engage with the application downloaded.

It's also important to limit your browsing on non-secure, public Wi-Fi zones as this can leave you open to phone mirroring and other nasty attacks. Make sure you only connected to your trusted home and work Wi-Fi.

While this may appear obvious, growing numbers of malicious campaigns start from a single text message requesting a password reset. These phishing attacks can look so convincing it's difficult to notice any difference between the actual website or company contacting you. To reduce your risk, don't click on any links or enter any personal information via those links and get in touch with the company that is purporting to contact you.

All smartphone owners should really be taking these precautions, even if they have opted for a mobile antivirus package.

Will free antivirus work?

Like with most things, there are able, free antivirus apps, but generally speaking, the paid-for options are considered much better and if you can't make up your mind, a lot of the big antivirus companies do offer free trials.

However, most (if not all) Windows and Android smartphones come with built-in security features that offer relatively good mobile protection so depending on your usage, a paid-for antivirus might just be charging you for features your phone already has.

Sadly, a lot of mobile antivirus apps only come into effect once the phone has been infected with some form of virus or malware, so opting for a free version could be a good start, rather than paying for a mobile antivirus that might not be able to actually protect your phone.  

If you do choose to download an antivirus app, you should note that the majority of them use a considerable amount of battery, take up storage space, could reduce response speeds and a lot of them do send push notifications, prompting users to begin scans or to update the app.

What is the best mobile antivirus for Android?

If you have decided that you want to use a mobile antivirus app, there are quite a few to choose from. We like options from Bitdefender, Intel Security and Kaspersky Lab. According to AV-Test.org, all of those listed scored full marks for usability and protection, with the exception of Avast which lost half a point, but is still a top performing option.

What is the best mobile antivirus for Windows phones?

As a relatively small proportion of smartphone owners have a Windows phone, users are certainly at less risk than users on the open Android platform, as malicious attackers generally aim for more popular app stores such as Google Play. 

However, if you choose to download a Windows mobile antivirus, Kaspersky Lab, 360 Total Security and Avast are good options.

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