Can Websites & Apps Track Your Phone?
It’s easier than ever for websites and apps to track your phone. You may not know it, but your phone contains information specifically designed to help third parties track you. It’s called an advertising ID – it’s unique to your device and every phone has one. Trackers can determine your location, browsing habits, and more. Some information, like your actual phone number, is harder to get a hold of. However, just because it isn’t easy, doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
You may wonder why anyone would want to track your phone and what they’re looking for. Better yet, how do you stop it? Don’t worry, we have answers and ways you can prevent websites and apps from tracking your phone.
Who’s Tracking Your Phone?
Apps you use, websites you visit, and even your phone provider could be tracking your phone. It’s not hard to spot the signs of tracking either – often you’ll receive odd text messages or calls from unknown numbers. If a cybercriminal compromises your device, you may notice random reboots or strange noises during phone calls.
Never respond to any message from a number you aren’t familiar with, because it’s possible the sender is phishing to see if it’s an active number. Replying confirms it is. Double-check your contacts list and block the number when necessary. You can always unblock it later if you find out it’s Grandma’s new phone.
How can websites track your phone? Let’s take a look at the most common forms of tracking and malware software websites and apps use to infiltrate your phone.
Even harmless apps and other software can come with trojans. The malware attaches itself to software downloads, boarding your phone when you install an app. To help prevent this issue, only download apps from trusted sources, including the App Store, PlayStore, or the app’s official website.
Spyware/adware refers to software or ads, which gather and relay your mobile information to third parties using your mobile network. You can help protect yourself against spyware and other forms of malware by installing an ad, tracker, and malware blocker.
What Information Do Websites & Apps Look For?
The time people spent on social media apps sharing unique content accounted for 26% of mobile app time in 2021. Think about it: where do you post most of your vacation photos, fancy restaurant dishes, new vehicle images, and family events? These events, locations, and images all help companies build a ‘you’ database — a place to store all the bits of information they collect about you.
Can websites track your phone? Absolutely. And it’s not the only information they can access if you don’t privatize your account. You provide much more if you aren’t careful when downloading apps. Shady permissions requests can give third parties access to:
- Mobile OS version
- Product ID
- Messaging, browsing, and download habits
- International Mobile Equipment ID (IMEI)
- Email address
- Phone number
Ways Websites & Apps Use Your Phone Information
Cybercriminals and apps use your IMEI to gather more useful data, like personally identifiable information (PII), and infiltrate your network. PII can include your phone number, address, email, location, images, and messaging and browsing habits. While cybercriminals can manipulate this information to lock you out of your network, many apps and data thieves would rather use it against you.
Most phishing apps and websites generally use your personal information to send you spam promotions, including links to websites wanting to steal your data. My personal favorite are robocallers. Usually, my warranty has expired for a car I never bought, or the IRS is placing a levy on my wages if I don’t send them $500 in gift card payments. Aside from being annoying, these scam calls somehow manage to snare 33% of Americans as victims — of those, 20% end up repeating the mistake.
A cybercriminal can use your email address to involve you or your contacts in phishing scams. With your IMEI, thieves can manipulate your network to make you a part of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, lock you out of your network, or use it as the base of operations for fraudulent activity. The banking information you store on your phone may make it easier for thieves to open lines of credit or run up fraudulent charges on your account.
What Websites & Apps Have My Phone Number?
Any website you provide your number to can retain your phone number – if they share it, it will depend on their logging and privacy policies. Some have practical reasons to request your phone number. Most shipping services and banks ask for your phone number to contact you in case of an issue, like a shipping delay or potentially fraudulent charge. Others spam you with robocalls or special deal texts.
Adding your phone number to your social media accounts and then not making them private can also broadcast your number across the internet. So, how do you know what other websites and apps have your phone number, aside from the ones you gave it to? It can be tricky because doing a standard search (incognito or not) won’t cut it. Many of the sites in the search results are clickbait, meant to make you think your number was found on the dark web or involved in a scam.
Paid services helping you determine which online sites have your number are usually expensive, though I did find a $1 for a 7-day trial deal on BeenVerified. The service allows you to pay with Venmo, PayPal, or GooglePay and the site uses SSL encryption — all nice from an anonymity standpoint. It also allows you to remove your information from background search sites (this includes your phone number). I found it easy to use and cancel when I was done.
Can I Remove My Phone Number From the Internet?
You always have the option to remove your phone number from your accounts if it isn’t mandatory information. Most search engines also have an opt-out option, which removes your phone number from search results.
Some apps claim to do this for you on all search engines, but your safest bet is to visit search engines personally. Fill out the form to have your personal information excluded from search results.
Contacting the site owner directly is an option, though you shouldn’t expect a positive outcome to those requests. Services like Delete Me and Optery may also be useful to some extent, but again you will need to trust them with your name, phone number, and financial information before you see results.
The best way to keep your phone number private is to use preventative security measures and limit the sites you enter it on.
How to Stop Websites & Apps From Getting Your Phone Number
It’s unrealistic to tell you to quit using your phone to access the internet and avoid location services altogether — it’s also completely unnecessary. Not all websites or apps use your phone information recklessly, and many require location services to function properly.
You can limit which apps have permission to use specific phone services and turn off a few unneeded extras, which will minimize the odds of websites tracking your phone. Fortunately, you can protect your phone data without going to extremes by following the tips below.
Turn On “Do Not Track”
Disabling tracking on Android or iPhone can help increase your privacy, as it sends a request to all advertisers and websites not to track your online browsing habits. While deactivating tracking on your phone is beneficial, it isn’t foolproof. Websites you visit still have the right to choose how they respond to tracking requests.
On iOS 14+, you’ll find tracking under ‘Settings’. Just click on the ‘Settings’ icon on your iPhone, choose ‘Privacy’ from the menu, and click on ‘Tracking’. Then turn off tracking for all apps or pick custom settings for individual apps.
Once you deactivate tracking on your phone, exit any open windows and clear your browsing history, cookies, and cache, before using any apps.
Use A Malware & Tracker Blocker
Ad, malware, and tracker blockers stop third-party software from tracking you online. Once you enable the blocker, trackers can’t use cross-site tracking. Trackers use well-known tracking URLs from across the internet to follow you from site to site. A blocker prevents trackers from accessing those URLs.
Blockers also stop adware, spyware, and other forms of bloatware from loading to your device and slowing your system down. PIA MACE blocks trackers and malware at the DNS level – before it reaches your phone.
Install A VPN
Once cybercriminals, websites, or apps have your IP address, they can locate your phone, discover your identity, or pinpoint your location. A VPN hides your true location by changing your visible IP address. This helps prevent advertisers, apps, and websites from tracking your location.
PIA gives you the choice between two unbreakable encryption methods: our default 128-bit AES or military-grade 256-bit AES. You can also use two of the most secure tunneling protocols available – OpenVPN and WireGuard®.
Remove Your Phone’s Advertising ID
A mobile phone advertising ID uniquely identifies your device. Its only purpose is to allow companies and apps to track you. Unfortunately, they usually do it with third-party software. Who knows how many hands your data goes through before it gets where it’s going.
No matter how anonymous phone companies want you to believe it is, your advertising ID can pose serious threats to privacy. Some of these third-party trackers on websites can get your phone number, location, and email address. Removing it helps prevent many forms of tracking.
For iOS, you can find your advertising ID under the ‘Privacy’ section in ‘Settings’. Select ‘Apple Advertising’ and then click on ‘Turn off personalized ads’. This doesn’t delete your advertising ID, but it prevents apps and websites from bombarding you with ads based on recent purchases or browsing history.
Turn Off Location Tracking
The list of apps needing your exact location is pretty small. Banking apps and geolocation services like Google Maps are two off the top of my head. Most apps work fine with an approximate location.
Even banking and geolocations services only need your location while you’re using the app, which cuts back the amount of tracking they can do significantly. Luckily, you have a few options for location settings on both Android and iOS.
Android allows you to change location permissions in ‘Settings’ – you can choose permissions by app or turn them off completely. You also have the option to prevent precise location for any app, as well as the ability to only allow location services while using the app.
iOS doesn’t offer as much flexibility for location services, but you can customize location preferences in ‘Settings’ under ‘Privacy’ on your iPhone. Turn location permissions off entirely or allow permissions on a per-app basis.
Keep Your Phone Information Private
Anything you connect to the internet is trackable, including your mobile phone. You need to stay vigilant about who you give your phone number to, and increase your phone security to prevent tracking and data theft. Remove your number from any online accounts where it isn’t mandatory, and use anti-tracking software like a blocker and VPN.
You should enjoy your mobile device instead of worrying if someone else is. PIA can help. We provide a reliable VPN with two unbreakable encryption methods to choose from, and allow you to stop trackers with our all-in-one blocker PIA MACE.
Yes. Some websites and apps include trackers with their downloads. A site might be legitimate, and unaware this software installs with their service. In many cases, the only way to ensure you remove stalkerware is a complete factory reset.
PIA can help you avoid a reset. Our built-in ad, malware, and tracker blocker, MACE, stops threats before they reach your device. You can also include antivirus protection for a small additional fee.
Typing your number into a search engine to find out what sites it isn’t a good idea. The results could send you to phishing sites who log your number the moment you enter it to search the services database.
Yes. Once they do, they can use it to access your phone and steal more private information, infect your phone with malware, or send you phishing texts. Luckily, you can protect your phone number and the rest of your device with a few simple steps.
Create strong passwords, use fake answers to personal questions (especially information easy to find online, like your mother’s maiden name), and use PIA to help protect your digital identity.
Most websites don’t, but it doesn’t stop them from asking for it. Some websites may need to contact you via phone if an issue arises. For instance, a bank may need to contact you with questions on suspicious transactions, or a shipping service notifying you of a delay.
PIA has a strict No Logs policy, so we never share any of the identifying information you enter when you subscribe. Our site also uses SSL encryption, so the connection between you and our website remains secure.