How to Remove Spyware on an iPhone

Beware: Spyware could be lurking on your iPhone right now. Here’s how to find out if it’s there—and what you can do about it.

Our iPhones make our lives so much easier, putting everything from banking to shopping to emailing at the tips of our fingers. Unfortunately, what is convenient for us is also convenient for cybercriminals, who see our phones as a treasure trove of passwords, data, corporate documents, and personal information that they can use to steal money and more. One way they do this is by installing spyware on your iPhone, which is one of the top mobile security threats facing smartphone users. Of course, the problem is that you likely won’t even know it’s there—unless you know what to look for. Here, we break down how criminals get malware onto your phone and how you can get rid of it. It’s one of those iPhone security topics you’ll be glad you know about.

What is spyware?

In short, spyware is a kind of malicious software (known as malware) that gets installed on a victim’s phone or computer for the purpose of theft. “Spyware programs monitor your online activities, such as your messages [and] sites you are visiting, and sends this information to another party without your consent,” explains Craig Lurey, chief technology officer and co-founder of Keeper Security. “Many spyware programs contain keyboard loggers, which can be used to compromise your passwords. Some spyware programs can even track the physical location of your phone, allowing other parties to monitor your real-world movements.”

It can sneak onto a device several ways, notes Cindy Murphy, president of Tetra Defense: “Clicking on a malicious link, visiting a malicious website, or downloading an app through a non-trusted vendor are among the most common. For iPhones in particular, spyware is usually very difficult to install unless the device is jailbroken.”

The term jailbreaking refers to a process that tech-savvy people use to remove restrictions imposed by Apple. Jailbreaking lets users install apps, software, and extensions that are not authorized by Apple’s App Store, according to Norton Security. This is not illegal, but it’s not recommended, as many times those restrictions are provided by Apple for safety reasons.

Two indications that there might be spyware installed on your phone: the app Cydia and a quickly-draining, Getty Images

Warning signs of iPhone spyware and iPhone trackers

Even though spyware attacks are not as common on iPhones as they are on Android phones, they can happen. Be on the lookout for these signs that spyware might have been uploaded to your phone, as well as these other ways to tell if your phone has been hacked.

The battery drains quickly and overheats

With the malicious software constantly working in the background, your phone will drain unusually quickly, says Murphy, and will, in turn, get very hot. While this can also be a warning sign that you need a new cell phone, you’ll want to check for malware first.

You have a jailbroken phone

“Aside from increased risk from a user jailbreaking their own iOS device (and subsequently downloading apps from untrusted sources), the presence of an app called Cydia is a red flag,” says Murphy. “This app is an Advanced Package Tool (APT) for iOS that allows a user to locate and install software that is not authorized by Apple. It will only run on jailbroken phones, allowing those users to install software packages that may otherwise be thwarted by a trusted app store.”

Encrypted SMS messages

If you are receiving strange text messages that appear to contain code, that is a worrisome sign you’ve been hit with spyware, notes Lurey. For other texting scams, learn more about smishing. Speaking of encryption, make sure you know what an encrypted phone is and how it can help keep your personal information safe.

Data usage spikes

“All spy apps work by sending data from your device back to the hacker over the Internet,” says Russell Kent-Payne, cofounder and director of Certo Software. “This means that you are likely to see an increase in data usage if spyware is present on your phone.” Check your bill for spikes, or if you are on an unlimited plan, check your data usage under Cellular in your iPhone Settings.

Can you put spyware on an iPhone?

“Yes, spyware can be installed on iPhones despite their advanced security features,” warns Lurey. “Many times, spyware is installed through phishing links sent through SMS. Clicking on the link takes you to a ‘drive-by download’ site that surreptitiously installs the spyware on your phone. Other times, apps that contain spyware make it into the Apple Store. The bottom line: iPhones are not ‘unhackable.’ No device is.” That’s why it’s important to know about iPhone privacy settings and how they help secure your phone.

Can you tell if someone is spying on your iPhone?

Yes, in addition to the warning signs listed above, you can download a spy detection app from the Apple Store, suggests Lurey.

So, how do you remove spyware from your iPhone?

You have a few options here, and they’re easier than you think. The key is to take action quickly once you’ve identified the issue. Of course, you should also see if any damage has been done by checking for the signs of identity theft.

Use spyware-detecting and anti-spyware apps

Wired magazine suggests Incognito, Certo, and Kaspersky Antivirus. “[These] are three phone-scanning apps that come well recommended by their users, and they should tell you if you have anything to worry about.”

Update iOS

“The simplest way of removing spyware from an iPhone is to perform a software (iOS) update,” says Lurey. “If your phone has been jailbroken, this will remove the jailbreak.” An important note: If you don’t update your software regularly, you’re leaving your phone vulnerable. Here are more indications you’re about to be hacked.

Remove apps

Delete any apps that you don’t remember downloading. While you’re at it, delete a few more—if these apps are still on your phone, someone may be spying on you.

Perform a factory reset

“This is a last-resort tactic that should only really be used if nothing else works. This method will completely erase all data from your phone, including any spyware,” notes Kent-Payne. “This will wipe your personal data, too, so make sure you back up any contacts, photos, videos, etc., that you want to keep. To perform a factory reset on your iOS device, plug your phone into a computer running iTunes, then reset it from there using the Restore iPhone option.” Performing a factory reset is also incredibly important for cell phone recycling purposes—it’ll help prevent your personal information from falling into the wrong hands.

Check all devices that are accessing your iCloud

“For iPhone users, it’s important to stay aware of just how connected your device is to others when considering a shared iCloud account,” says Murphy. “Any laptop, iPad, or other iOS device on the same iCloud account will share a lot of data through Apple Continuity and Sync functions.”

This means that your backup archives could become accessible to a cybercriminal. “If iCloud credentials are harvested, a backup copy of the essential files, photos, and messages could become available to a third party,” she explains. “For this reason, it’s extremely important to safeguard your username and password, and further protect them by enabling Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA).” This is especially important if someone stole your iPhone. Hackers can get a lot of information off of a stolen iPhone, so check each device and your iCloud account for suspicious activity and make any necessary security changes. You can also learn how to clear cookies on your phone so your personal information isn’t compromised.

Change your passwords

Of course, you don’t want to find yourself in this situation again. That’s why Lurey implores good password hygiene. “After removing spyware, you’ll want to reset all of your passwords, or at least your most critical and commonly used ones, in case the spyware contained a keyboard logger,” he advises. “A password manager will make this task a lot easier, plus keep your passwords safe moving forward, so if you didn’t have a password manager before, get one now.” FYI, these are the 12 password mistakes hackers hope you’ll make.


Joe McKinley
Joe McKinley is a regular contributor to Reader's Digest, covering cars, careers, tech and more.