Users untouched by mobile viruses despite hype

Phantom menace

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The mobile phone virus threat is been wildly over-hyped, according to a support firm which says calls about infections by mobile malware are almost unknown.

WDSGlobal handles around 100,000 specialist data support calls every month on behalf of Nokia, T-Mobile, Orange, Sony-Ericsson, HP and other operators and manufacturers. Less than 10 of 275,000 support calls fielded by the firm in the first three months of this year were related to a mobile viruses.

The biggest single source of support calls fielded by WDSGlobal revolve around device configuration (e.g. enabling email on the move, setting up GPRS services or MMS services etc.) which accounts for 40 per cent of inquiries. Pairing mobile with PCs (32 per cent) and synchronising data between phones and PCs (8 per cent) also frequently prompt calls. Dealing with the aftermath of mobile viruses simply doesn't figure.

Phony war on mobile malware

WDSGlobal handles second-line support for data-related problems. It doesn't field voice service-related support calls. It would be at the front-line of dealing with mobile phone virus problems, except that it isn't.

Doug Overton of WDSGlobal said anti-virus vendors are overstating the threat to push sales of mobile anti-virus software. "There are few malicious mobile viruses in the wild and they are not a significant threat, at least for now. But there is a lot of scaremongering going on and the media, interested in horror stories, are lapping it up," he said.

Mobile viruses target features found in advanced smart phones, leaving the vast majority of people with older phones far less at risk. As smart phone penetration increases from its present level of four per cent then risks will increase, Overton acknowledges. Even so, comparisons with the early days of PC viruses are misplaced because user interaction is required to get infected with any mobile virus seen to date.

"A mobile viruses give warnings that it's infecting a smart phone. Of 14 mobile viruses in circulation only four - including Skulls - attack data on a device. Mobile viruses such as Cabir only drain battery life; they don't damage data. Most spread by Bluetooth which only has a short range. We searched for viruses like Cabir on P2P networks and the like and simply couldn't find them. It's a myth that mobile viruses are widespread," Overton said.

Protect and survive

WDSGlobal's experience stands in sharp contrast with user (and operator) concerns about the risk posed by mobile malware. In a recent survey 210 of 300 US adults quizzed by Symantec said they were concerned about the possibility of virus writers stealing or corrupting confidential information stored on their smart phones. The Cabir worm, first discovered in July 2004, has infected phones in 20 countries, according to anti-virus firm F-Secure.

Kevin Hogan, senior security manager at Symantec security response, said that he wouldn't quibble with WDSGlobal's experience.

"There are relatively few viruses that target mobile phones and you'd have to be unlucky to be infected. Cabir, for example, only infect with first device it locks onto. It's not a mass mailer. Nonetheless we are further along the path of seeing mobile phone viruses than even a year ago. People shouldn't worry but they need to realise since phones are becoming more like small computers and that mobile phone viruses are no longer just a theoretical risk," he said. ®

Related stories

Cabir added to payload of Symbian mobile Trojan
Symbian worm source code slips out
MMS virus discovered
SMS phone crash exploit a risk for older Nokias

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