Predatory Android loan apps downloaded 12 million times — avoid these like the plague

Android malware botnet attack
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Scammers have taken advantage of the current economic turmoil to trick unsuspecting smartphone users into signing up for malicious loan apps that promise quick and easy cash but with a huge catch.

As reported by BleepingComputer, so far this year, these dangerous apps (generically referred to as SpyLoan), have been downloaded over 12 million times from the Google Play Store

Since the beginning of this year, the cybersecurity firm ESET has discovered a total of 18 different SpyLoan apps capable of stealing sensitive data including account and device information, installed apps, calendar events, local Wi-Fi network details and metadata from images stored on victim’s smartphones.

While the promise of getting approved for a loan and having it paid out via your smartphone may be tempting, here’s why you want to avoid these malicious SpyLoan apps at all costs.

From quick loans to blackmail

Although SpyLoan apps first appeared back in 2020, beginning last year they’ve become much more common on both Android and iOS.

In a new report, ESET explains that while these malicious apps could make their way to the U.S. eventually, for the moment, they are much more prominent in Mexico, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Egypt, Vietnam, Singapore, Kenya, Colombia and Peru. This doesn’t mean they are the kind of threat you should ignore, though.

Marketed through social media and text messages and available to download from malicious websites and third-party app stores, SpyLoan apps may differ slightly in appearance, but they all work the same way. Once a potential victim installs one, they are then prompted to accept the terms of service and grant extensive permissions which are used to siphon off their sensitive personal data.

From here, SpyLoan apps take users through the loan application process where other sensitive data like scanned copies of their driver’s license and even a selfie are required for completion. While these malicious loan apps do actually pay out money to their users, this comes with more hassle than it’s worth.

Even if you just install one of these apps and don’t get approved for a loan, you’ll likely encounter harassment and may even be blackmailed by their operators. These threats come in the form of an endless stream of messages that are designed to coerce borrowers into paying back their loan as soon as possible.

SpyLoan apps also have much higher interest rates and the repayment period on any loans they provide can be shortened at a moment’s notice. Imagine thinking you have a month to make a payment on a loan only to find out the entire balance is due in only a few days time. This has occurred with a number of SpyLoan victims and a few have even reported that the loan enforcers have even threatened to kill their family members.

How to stay safe from loan scam apps

A hand holding a phone securely logging in

(Image credit: Google)

If something seems too good to be true it probably is and when it comes to SpyLoan and many other loan apps, this is absolutely the case.

Even though it can be a real hassle, you’re better off only applying for loans from established institutions like well-known banks and other certified lenders. However, before taking out any loan, you need to carefully research the organization you’re borrowing from and find out about its history, reputation and whether or not it’s registered with national regulatory agencies.

You’re better off only applying for loans from established institutions like well-known banks and other certified lenders"

For those who do decide to install a mobile loan app, you should carefully scrutinize all of the permissions requested by the app before putting it onto your smartphone. Does this particular app really need to access your contacts, text messages, location, files or photos?

At the same time, you also want to avoid installing apps from unknown sources as they can contain malware or other viruses. While SpyLoan apps like the 18 described above did manage to end up on the Play Store, they were quickly removed by Google once the search giant was presented with ESET’s research on them.

For additional protection from loan scam apps, you should be using one of the best Android antivirus apps on your smartphone. While Google Play Protect can also scan your existing apps and any new ones you download for malware, paid antivirus programs often give you access to other security features designed to help protect your privacy and keep you safe online like a VPN or even a password manager.

Loan scams have been around since the dawn of time but by distributing them as apps, their operators are able to collect even more data on borrowers which they can use for leverage. When in doubt, head to the bank or call a financial institution on the phone to schedule an appointment instead of taking a huge risk with a shady loan app.

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Anthony Spadafora
Senior Editor Security and Networking

Anthony Spadafora is the security and networking editor at Tom’s Guide where he covers everything from data breaches and ransomware gangs to password managers and the best way to cover your whole home or business with Wi-Fi. Before joining the team, he wrote for ITProPortal while living in Korea and later for TechRadar Pro after moving back to the US. Based in Houston, Texas, when he’s not writing Anthony can be found tinkering with PCs and game consoles, managing cables and upgrading his smart home.