Teens and tweens targeted by game hack attacks, says McAfee

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McAfee says apps are one of the biggest threats to mobile security and ensuring online protection for minors is a challenge in the era of modern parenting

Teens and tween gamers with phones are being targeted by cybercriminals, with almost 10% of threats in 2022 coming from casual, arcade and action games aimed at youngsters.

The data emerged in online protection leader McAfee’s annual Consumer Mobile Threat Report, issued this week to coincide with the Mobile World Congress (MWC) Barcelona. The report details key global trends in mobile threats and scams to be aware of and how to protect against them.

In late 2022, groundbreaking applications, such as OpenAI's ChatGPT chatbot and DALL-E 2 image generator, were introduced. These tools democratised access to powerful artificial intelligence (AI), opening up exciting opportunities for innovation and productivity. 

However, they also presented cybercriminals with the same opportunities. McAfee's 2023 Consumer Mobile Threat Report, prepared by their Mobile Research team, highlights how cybercriminals are exploiting these tools to deceive or defraud consumers, with a particular emphasis on the widespread use of malicious phone applications.

“Our mobile devices are an essential part of our daily lives now more than ever. They allow us to access a wealth of information and entertainment and provide the freedom to be productive from almost anywhere,” says Steve Grobman, Chief Technology Officer, McAfee. “Unfortunately, they also provide cybercriminals with greater access to potential victims. By sharing insights from McAfee’s Threat Research Team, we are empowering our customers to freely and safely enjoy their digital lives.”

Malicious apps usually fall into a few categories that are popular, easy to use, and appear harmless. Although some malicious apps offer legitimate functionality, just because a free app works does not mean it lacks ulterior motives. Cybercriminals frequently employ encryption to conceal their malicious code from reviewers, or they insert a delay to prevent the app's malicious intent from appearing until after it has been published in the app store.

With OpenAI's new AI image generator, DALL-E 2, a wave of AI-based mobile applications that create artistic images based on photos emerged. While some of these apps are genuine, others may be malicious apps seeking to exploit recent AI trends.

Cybercriminals are leveraging malicious apps in a variety of ways, including:

Sliding into your DMs

Just over six per cent - 6.2% - of threats that McAfee identified on Google during 2022 were in the "Communication" category, mainly malware masqueraded as SMS apps. But even legitimate communication apps can create an opportunity for scammers. They will use fraudulent messages to trick consumers into clicking on a malicious link, trying to get them to share login credentials, account numbers, or personal information. 

While these messages sometimes contain spelling or grammar errors or use odd phrasing, the emergence of AI tools like ChatGPT can help scammers clean up their spelling and grammar mistakes, making it tougher to spot scam messages by mistakes in the content. The severity of these Communication threats is also evident in the volume of adults (66%) who have been messaged by a stranger on social media, with 55% asked to transfer money.

Taking advantage of Bring Your Own Device policies

A total of 23% of threats that McAfee identified were in the "Tools" app category. Work-related apps for mobile devices are great productivity boosters – categories like PDF editors, VPNs, messaging managers, document scanners, battery boosters, and memory cleaners. 

These types of apps are targeted for malware because people expect the app to require permissions on their phone. Asking for permissions to storage, messaging, calendars, contacts, location, and even system settings is not unusual and enables the scammers to retrieve all sorts of work-related information.

Targeting teens and tween gamers with phones

Nine per cent of threats that McAfee identified were Games from app categories such as Casual, Arcade and Action. Malicious apps often target things that children and teens like, such as gaming, making videos, and managing social media. The most common types of threats detected within the gaming category in 2022 were aggressive adware - apps that display excessive advertisements while using the app and even when you're not using it. 

It’s important to make sure that kids’ phones are either restricted from downloading new apps, or that they’re informed and capable of questioning suspicious apps and identifying fraudulent ones, says McAfee.

McAfee’s Mobile Research team recommends the following tactics for consumers to protect themselves and their families:

  • Be suspicious of unsolicited emails, texts, or direct messages and think twice before you click on any links.
  • Remember that most of these scams work because the scammer creates a false sense of urgency or preys on a heightened emotional state. Pause before you rush to interact with any message that is threatening or urgent, especially if it is from an unknown or unlikely sender.
  • If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Ensure that your mobile device is protected with security solutions that include features to monitor and block potentially malicious links.
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