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How Cell-phone Viruses Work

Cell-phone Virus Basics

A cell-phone virus is basically the same thing as a computer virus — an unwanted executable file that “infects” a device and then copies itself to other devices. But whereas a computer virus or worm spreads through e-mail attachments and Internet downloads, a cell-phone virus or worm spreads via Internet downloads, MMS (multimedia messaging service) attachments and Bluetooth transfers. The most common type of cell-phone infection right now occurs when a cell phone downloads an infected file from a PC or the Internet, but phone-to-phone viruses are on the rise.

How Cell-phone Viruses Work

Current phone-to-phone viruses almost exclusively infect phones running the Symbian operating system. The large number of proprietary operating systems in the cell-phone world is one of the obstacles to mass infection. Cell-phone-virus writers have no Windows-level marketshare to target, so any virus will only affect a small percentage of phones.

Infected files usually show up disguised as applications like games, security patches, add-on functionalities and, of course, pornography and free stuff. Infected text messages sometimes steal the subject line from a message you’ve received from a friend, which of course increases the likelihood of your opening it — but opening the message isn’t enough to get infected. You have to choose to open the message attachment and agree to install the program, which is another obstacle to mass infection: To date, no reported phone-to-phone virus auto-installs. The installation obstacles and the methods of spreading limit the amount of damage the current generation of cell-phone virus can do.

How They Spread

Phones that can only make and receive calls are not at risk. Only smartphones with a Bluetooth connection and data capabilities can receive a cell-phone virus. These viruses spread primarily in three ways:

  • Internet downloads – The virus spreads the same way a traditional computer virus does. The user downloads an infected file to the phone by way of a PC or the phone’s own Internet connection. This may include file-sharing downloads, applications available from add-on sites (such as ringtones or games) and false security patches posted on the Symbian Web site.
  • Bluetooth wireless connection – The virus spreads between phones by way of their Bluetooth connection. The user receives a virus via Bluetooth when the phone is in discoverable mode, meaning it can be seen by other Bluetooth-enabled phones. In this case, the virus spreads like an airborne illness. According to, cell-phone-virus researchers at F-Secure’s U.S. lab now conduct their studies in a bomb shelter so their research topics don’t end up spreading to every Bluetooth-enabled phone in the vicinity.
  • Multimedia Messaging Service – The virus is an attachment to an MMS text message. As with computer viruses that arrive as e-mail attachments, the user must choose to open the attachment and then install it in order for the virus to infect the phone. Typically, a virus that spreads via MMS gets into the phone’s contact list and sends itself to every phone number stored there.


For more detail: How Cell-phone Viruses Work

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