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How to choose the best mobile security app

By Oli McKean

Should you install a security app from AVG, Avast, McAfee or Norton? Our tests reveal the best mobile security apps to protect you from viruses and scams.

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A mobile security app can help protect your smartphone or tablet from viruses, scammers and thieves. But not all mobile security apps are created equal. Read on to find out how to choose the best.

Just like a computer, your smartphone and tablet are open to malware, viruses, and scams. We carry so much personal data on our mobile devices that it's essential to protect yourself from the threat of criminals.

Read on to find out why you should download a mobile security app, as well as our guidance on getting the best one for you. Do you need to pay for it, or will a free app do the job?

Just want to know which security apps are the best? Head straight to our mobile security app Best Buys.

Why do I need a mobile security app?

There are a host of mobile security apps that claim to protect your device. As well as keeping your mobile or tablet free from malware and other harmful infections, the best security apps will also help you avoid phishing scams, keep your personal data private, and help you find and wipe a lost gadget.

We spoke to the Head of IT at Which? to find out more about mobile security apps, and how to best stay safe online.

To him, mobile security apps are just as vital as desktop programs, as any device that connects to the internet is vulnerable to online threats. And you should regularly update your mobile or tablet, and back up your data to reduce the impact in the worst-case scenario.

You should also be vigilant, and keep your eye out for spam or phishing emails. Some scammers produce authentic-looking emails purporting to be from a specific company but aren't. If you weren't expecting the email (especially from banks/HMRC etc) which then asks you to provide login credentials, or click on a link or attachment, call them first to make sure it's authentic - or at least check the email 'return address' to see if it's from who it says it is.

Are free security apps worth my time?

We don’t hand out Best Buys unless they’re deserved, and mobile security apps are no different. If we’ve awarded some free downloads our top honour, it means you can trust they’ll keep your device free from malicious content and won’t slow it down in the process.

Pros: Our Best Buy free apps do all the basics brilliantly. If your only concerns are malware and vulnerability to scams, a free app is the obvious choice.

Cons: Free antivirus downloads don’t come with the same whistles and bells that their paid-for cousins do. Some only have full functionality for a few weeks, then you’re left with only the basic free tools and features after the trial period ends.

What can I expect if I pay for a mobile security app?

Considering how much cash you’ll hand over for your phone or tablet, the idea of paying more on top to protect your device may seem rather unfair. But, as well as offering virus protection and anti-spam tools, most paid-for security apps go above and beyond what free apps will offer.

Pros: Paid-for security apps are more likely to come with fancy features. This can include cloud-based (ie online) backup before every malware scan you carry out and the ability to access your device if it's been lost or stolen.

Cons: We've found some free mobile security apps that outperform paid-for apps when it comes to protecting your device from malware or scams - and even free Best Buys. With this in mind, you may find digging into your pockets for a few extra features a little unnecessary.

Which mobile security app features should I consider?

Which features do you really need and which are just added bonuses? We break down the jargon to tell you what each feature does.

Anti-phishing: Sniffs out dodgy-looking links and should bar you from accessing potentially dangerous websites designed to infect machines or steal your personal data.

App lock: Lets you protect certain apps and settings with a password, to restrict who can use or edit them.

Backup: Preserves your personal information by saving it online using 'cloud' (internet-based) storage, as well as on your device. Backup happens either according to a schedule or before you complete a remote wipe. Backups can then be restored to any compatible device.

Call/SMS blocking: Filters and blocks unwanted calls and text messages, with warnings when you receive a suspicious text.

Parental controls: Lets you prevent access to certain types of content by more innocent eyes.

Privacy adviser: Scans and checks any apps you try to download, telling you which ones are asking for more access than they really need.

Remote location: Uses GPS to show your phone or tablet’s location on a map from any web browser.

Remote lock: Locks down your device remotely via SMS or web browser interface, preventing unauthorised access. Some apps even allow you to create a customised lock-screen message that displays your contact details to aid the safe return of your device.

Remote photo: Helps identify unauthorised users of your phone or tablet by taking their photo and sending it to you via email. Some apps take snaps through the device's camera and emails them to you when a password is entered incorrectly a few times.

Remote wipe: Preserves your privacy by enabling you to wipe all contacts, calendars, photos, texts, browsing history and memory card in your phone.

Safe browsing mode: Checks webpages in real time, as you’re browsing the web, keeping you protected when you click on links or every time you type in a web address.

SIM lock: Stops others from using your phone or tablet by locking it down when the SIM card is removed.

Tune up: Optimises battery, data and storage use by identifying apps that use too much battery life or slow down your device’s performance. This means you can shut down and uninstall those apps.

Uninstall protection: Prevents thieves from bypassing the mobile security app and wiping any device data and apps. A password is required to delete the app.

Now find the perfect download for you by checking out our mobile security app reviews.

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