In the context of software development, “beta” denotes a pre-release version. It’s an intermediate stage between the development (alpha) phase and the final, polished version that reaches the public, or whatever its intended user base may be. And there’s often a lot of hype, especially among highly anticipated products. These beta versions are typically launched to identify glitches, gather user feedback, and further refine the application before its official release. 

However, when it comes to mobile apps, the FBI’s recent public service announcement reveals a growing cybersecurity menace: cybercriminals are increasingly using the mobile app “story” as a luring marketing ploy to get users to download fake beta mobile apps. It’s just another way to use social engineering for cybercrooks’ benefit, and it seems to be particularly successful for them, according to the FBI.

So, why are these so-called beta versions dangerous, apart from the obvious fact that they’re created by bad actors? Primarily because they are not subjected to the security checks and reviews that app stores enforce for official releases. That’s not to say that app stores are responsible for the overarching security posture of apps (the onus is fully on the developer for that), but this initial lack of even the most basic oversights offers an open playground for malefactors to do what they please, enabling them to embed malicious code that can siphon off Personally Identifiable Information (PII), gain unauthorized access to financial accounts, or even seize control of devices.

The modus operandi is quite simple. A user, potentially wooed by a phishing scheme or a seemingly genuine online acquaintance, is directed to download a beta-testing app, often with the promise of enticing financial rewards. For instance, an app masquerading as a legitimate cryptocurrency exchange platform could lure victims into making fake investments, eventually rerouting their funds straight into the cybercriminal’s coffers.

The warning signs of malicious apps

The indicators of a malicious app range from noticeable performance issues, like rapid battery drain or sluggish responsiveness, and asking for a set of permissions the app would plausibly not need, to more covert signs such as unauthorized app installations or suspiciously vague app descriptions riddled with errors. The allure of beta versions often lies in their exclusivity or the promise of accessing cutting-edge features before the masses. But it’s crucial to recognize that this allure is precisely what criminals bank on.

To stay safe:

  • Always scrutinize: Check the background of app developers and delve into customer reviews. A high download count with scant reviews is a glaring red flag.
  • Be skeptical: If an offer sounds too good to be true, exercise caution. An app promising hefty financial returns warrants meticulous scrutiny.
  • Guard your information: Regardless of how genuine an online contact appears, never share personal, financial, or sensitive information.
  • Trust but verify: Even if a message appears to come from a known contact, remain cautious. Cybercriminals are adept at disguising their true identity.

While true beta-testing apps can offer a sneak peek into the next big thing in mobile technology, users must tread cautiously. Non-legit beta mobile apps are a big no-go. Always prioritize security over novelty. The cyber-bad guys are betting that users will simply get ahead of themselves and not notice glaring indicators.

What can mobile app security and development teams do to bolster confidence in legit betas?

Of course, this only pertains to legit mobile apps coming to market. Mobile app security can’t be an afterthought. In fact, it needs to be part of the actual development process, making it all the more obvious that efforts to strengthen app defenses should play a central role in the beta process of any app, let alone the finalized main release and ongoing updates. 

And there’s no need to let cost considerations or concerns related to complexity or talent get in the way, as there are zero-code approaches to automatically protecting apps, detecting fraudulent outgoing connections, and obfuscating code to fend off would-be hackers. Marketing the strength of your mobile and the actions you take to proactively protect it can actually be a welcomed differentiator in the market. 

Verimatrix XTD not only proactively protects apps but also enables developers to monitor app actions and discover potential signals of fraud and other actions, ultimately allowing them to take customizable actions such as shutting down an app instance even on an unmanaged consumer device. And you can get started fast with our zero-code integration, compatible with your CI/CD. Learn more here