It’s easy to forget that the smartphone in your pocket is a fully-fledged computer. And, like all computers, it’s at risk from malware - software designed with the express purpose of doing something unpleasant to your device and probably your personal data. That means if you use a smartphone or tablet, you need to be aware of certain security issues.

Steer clear of scams

Many malware threats on Windows come from infected web sites, scams spread by email and social engineering tricks - and the same applies to mobile devices. The risk is reduced a little for mobile users, since criminals aren’t yet targeting smartphones and tablets specifically in these ways - although this will change.

Even so, if you use your mobile device for email or web browsing, you can still fall prey to these kinds of attacks and put your personal data at risk by inadvertently clicking a rogue link.

The best countermeasure here is common sense so as with any computer always be on the lookout for fake emails and suspicious-looking web sites on your smartphone or tablet.

You can, however, also use a ‘secure’ browser that will try to block visitors to own malware and phishing sites. F-Secure has an app for iOS and Android that does just that, and it’s free to use.

F-Secure

[Related story: How to deal with fraudulent emails]

Mitigate against malware — iOS

Websites aren’t the only source of malware, however, and criminals have long since started to target mobile devices with dedicated apps designed to steal data.

The good news for iPhone and iPad owners is that iOS is at considerably less risk from these kinds of attacks. Not only does Apple’s iOS have robust defences against attempts by apps to steal data, but apps also have to get through Apple’s App Store approval process before they can be downloaded - and that usually catches any attempts at criminality before it gets the chance to spread.

Of course it is still possible to ‘jaibreak’ iOS so that apps from any source can be installed and this is where malware can become a serious problem. Needless to say, if you’re concerned about security, you should think twice before jailbreaking your iPhone or iPad, and be prepared to suffer any consequences when installing apps from anywhere other than the App Store.

Mitigate against malware — Android

The situation for Android smartphones and tablets is somewhat more complicated. First, Android is an ‘open’ operating system that anyone can mess with to some degree. That means there are no safeguards in place to protect your personal data and there have been cases of brand new smartphones shipping from China with malware ‘pre-installed’.

Second, until very recently, apps submitted to the Google Play Store weren’t closely checked and, again, there have been many examples of malware spreading in the guise of legitimate software - some 42,000 examples in 2014, according to one security researcher. Google has now introduced an approvals process for new apps, but it remains to be seen how effective the system is.

[Related story: How to protect your Android smartphone from malware]

Third, the Play Store isn’t the only source of Android software — apps can be installed for anywhere. It goes without saying that downloading and installing an app from just any web site isn’t the best idea, but whether or not that makes much difference in the light of Android’s openness is debatable.

Take preventative measures

So the only real way to protect your mobile devices against malware is to install some anti-malware software. iPhone and iPad users might as well stop reading at this point, since Apple is so confident that iOS is immune from malware that it doesn’t allow anti-malware apps in the App Store. In short, if there’s no problem, there’s no need for a solution.

Android, on the other hand, is well served by anti-malware apps. Both free and paid-for apps are available, and you’ll probably recognise many of the names on Google Play - apps from AVG, Lookout, Bitdefender, Kaspersky and McAfee are all available.

Android anti-malware

One anti-malware app for Android that gets good reviews all-round is Avast! Mobile Security. The free version is easy to use and has lots of features, so most people can safely ignore the prompts to upgrade to the premium paid-for app. Download it from Google Play.

Malware isn’t considered to be a serious threat to mobile devices just yet, but it’s only a matter of time before criminals turn their attention to the vast numbers of smartphones storage huge amounts of lucrative personal data - so it’s a case of forewarned is forearmed.

Have you encountered malware on your mobile device? Let us know in the Comments section below.