Updated by Christian Cawley on October 28th, 2016.
My Android device just suggested I buy a brand new Audi, displaying a full screen popup advertisement to persuade me.
As someone who prefers to keep all manner of promotional materials, social networks, and malware off his phone (I use OmniROM, featured previously), this came as something of a surprise, as you can imagine.
One of my apps is serving ads. But which one is the malware?
Ads On Android: The Good Old Days
There was a time when ads on Android were big news. Remember Notification Area ads? They caused a bit of a storm when it became apparent that promotional messages would soon start appearing across the top of your phone’s display, with AirPush and SlingLabs just two of the companies making it possible for ads to appear there.
To combat this, opting out was the best solution, although you might have preferred to follow our solution to dealing with these Notification Area incursions.
With Notification Area ads (which can still impact users on older devices), it is straightforward to identify the app responsible thanks to its icon appearing next to the ad in Android 4.1 and later.
Full screen ads, on the other hand, are a little different.
How Do You Spot The Culprit App Serving Ads?
From time to time in the course of my work (for MakeUseOf and beyond), I end up with apps installed that I wouldn’t normally use. I’m more discerning than most; however, there is every chance that you’re using apps that are displaying ads that you’re putting up with, perhaps because you play a free game.
This is fair enough, as long as the ads appear in the game.
But what if the ads are popping up on the home screen with no warning? Putting it plainly, this is malware, something that can take some work to trace.
As the Advertising without Compromising User Experience page of the online Android app development training program states:
When deciding where to place ads within your application, you should carefully consider user-experience. For example, you don’t want to fill the screen with multiple ads that will quite likely annoy your users. In fact, this practice is banned by some ad networks. Also, avoid placing ads too closely to UI controls to avoid inadvertent clicks.
The first thing you should do is close all of your apps. Use the usual method of tapping the Recents key and swiping each app to the side to discard (or using the Clear All button if your version of Android supports it). You might also opt to restart your phone, which may be quicker.
Next, take a look at the apps you installed lately, around the time that the popups first appeared. This might take some doing if you’re a regular user of new apps. When you spot likely offenders, head to Google Play and check the reviews of the app. Do any relate to surprise ads? If so, delete that app. But don’t stop there! Check all the apps you have recently installed.
Recent versions of Android have made it easier to find out what is running on your device and what permissions the app uses. When you spot a notification for an app that you didn’t realise was active, that’s a good time to long-press the notification and tap the i button.
This will take you into the app’s permissions screen, where you can toggle what access it has to your phone’s hardware and features (such as contacts or the mobile network). From here, you’ll find full details for the app, which should reveal any associations; alternatively, you might find that the app isn’t quite what you thought it was.
Can’t Find The Offending App?
Perhaps the best option for anyone planning to use their phone or tablet without having to factory reset is to employ an anti-adware tool, a utility designed to detect ad-serving malware.
AdWare is probably the best place to start, a free app that will detect connections to ad networks from within your apps. You will probably already know that some of the results display in-app ads. What you’re looking for is anything that displays an ad on your home screen. With this app, you can tap the information button to see what sort of ads are being displayed, and take action from within the app to remove the offending software.
If you’re not already using a full mobile security app on your phone, then this is the best solution for dealing with the ads. Options here include ESET Mobile Security & Antivirus and Malwarebytes Anti-Malware.
Ad Network Detectors
You should also consider using an ad network detector. These apps are designed to detect connections between your phone and known ad networks, and block them. This should put an end to popup advertisements on your phone.
Several strong options are available, but we believe you should take a look at AppBrain Ad Detector and Lookout Security & Antivirus (previously Ad Network Detector). Addons Detector, meanwhile, gives you the information you need to investigate what ads are being displayed by which apps, as well as where they are served from. This might not be particularly useful, but it’s certainly worth being aware that the information is available.
Deleting The Ad-Serving Apps
Deleting an app is usually straightforward. Just open Settings > Applications and long-tap the app. Select Uninstall to remove it.
However, you might prefer a more extreme solution. The first would be to restore a backup of your phone taken before the evil ad-serving malware was installed.
Alternatively, you can initiate a factory restore to remove all apps and data from your phone, wiping it and starting from scratch. This might be the preferred option for most, especially if you’re particularly concerned by the ads that are being served.
Finally, consider installing an alternative ROM. If you’re going to factory reset, now is as good a time as any to look at different flavors of Android for your smartphone or tablet.
Have You Had Ad-Serving Android Malware?
Popup ads on your Android device are annoying. They use your data allowance (though you may decide to only use Wi-Fi) and get in the way when you’re trying to use your phone.
Put simply, popup ad malware on Android is an affront, and you shouldn’t stand for it. Take action!
Let us know what Android ad malware you’ve had, which apps you suspect of supplying it, and what solution you used to remove it.