Thursday, September 18, 2014

How to find suspicious in-app ads on Android

When you think of ad blocking tools, you tend to think in terms of the usual suspects -- web browser ads. But when you're on the Android platform, you have to retrain your thoughts to look elsewhere. In fact, ads can show up within aps (which is very common) and on your home screen (which is also common, but lesser known).
At one point, it was perfectly fine to have in-app ads. After all, those ads helped make the apps free... right? Right. Like everything else, however, the playground has been spoiled. Advertising systems intent on nefarious doings have managed to crop up and spread their special flavor of "bad" through in-app ads and home screen "ad launchers."
Prior to these showing up, the in-app ad was little more than an annoyance, sometimes taking up enough screen real estate to cause the user to pay the price of entry to remove the ad. But now, that annoyance has become a possible danger.
How can you avoid such a disaster? You can load up an ad blocker to help stop these compromised ad networks from gaining purchase of your system. I've found a few such ad blockers that do the job. Let's take a closer look.

1. AppBrain Ad Detector

The AppBrain Ad Detector is one tool you should definitely have, even if only to know what ad networks are present on your system. AppBrain is not actually an ad blocker, but it's something you should have in order to know as much about your Android device as possible. This app helps you to be informed about:
  • Push notifications that can place spam icons on your home screen and have the ability to access your location
  • Android ad networks such as Admob, Millennial Media, MobClix, Tapjoy, AdWhirl, and more
  • Detect libraries like Google Analytics, Flurry Analytics, Google Play in-app billing, and more
  • Detect apps that have push ads
AppBrain Ad Detector is very easy to use, but how you act on the information is up to you. This app will not remove anything from your device. However, if you hear of an advertising network that turns out to be one of the many dangerous systems, you can open up AppBrain, tap on the Show Concerns button in the main window (Figure A), swipe to the Ad Networks tab, locate the ad network in question, and find out what apps are included in that network.
Figure A

Figure A

AppBrain Ad Detector running on a Verizon-branded LG G3.

2. Easy Ads Cleaner

The Easy Ads Cleaner app helps you to find the cause of spam ads. With the tap of a single button, you can scan your device for apps containing spam ads. After the scan completes, the listing will display all possible spam ad apps, in the order of their risk. Many apps will show up as mid-risk (Figure B). Most of these are just apps that include ads but aren't part of dangerous ad networks. Should you spot a high-risk app, do not hesitate to uninstall the app.
Figure B

Figure B

Easy Ads Cleaner quickly spots apps with built-in ads.
To uninstall questionable apps, select the app(s), and tap the Uninstall button. High risk ads are those that:
  • Push ads in the notification bar
  • Leak your phone number
  • Dial when you click on ads
  • Send text messages when you click on ads
  • Read your address book
Middle risk ads are those that:
  • Collect device or mobile network info
  • Collect location information
  • Write spam messages to your inbox
  • Send email or take photos when you click on ads
Low risk ads are those that:
  • Download files when you click an ad
  • Create shortcut on your home screen
  • Modify the browser home page or bookmarks

3. TrustGo Ad Detector

The TrustGo Ad Detector app does a great job of protecting you from potential privacy leaks via the most commonly known ad networks. Tap the Scan button, and the app will analyze every application on the device and report back the behavior of the known ad networks. Possible behaviors range from leaking identity information to downloading files when you click an ad. Once you tap on a behavior, it will list out all the apps that fall into that category (Figure C). You can then tap the X to uninstall that particular app.
Figure C

Figure C

Apps that can possibly leak identity information.
Although you may not be concerned with privacy leaks, you should be. Using TrustGo Ad Detector will go a long way to prevent such leaks from your Android device. Make sure, however, that you go through the apps listed after the scan. If you see anything you don't use or didn't install, uninstall it immediately. You'll also find apps that include multiple ad networks (for example, Slacker Radio uses AdMob, Millennial, and MoPub). If you see anything suspect, do a bit of research and remove if warranted.
Finally, there's no substitute for adding an anti-malware app to your Android device. Install either Malwarebytes or Lookout to help keep your Android smartphone and/or tablet safe.