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Mobile apps primer 101

Mobile applications, or apps, can be fun, but can also be a tool for retrieving a user's personal information without the user's knowledge, according to a spokeswoman for the local Better Business Bureau (BBB).

Dottie Callina, of rhe BBB Serving Metro Atlanta, Athens and Northeast Georgia, Inc., said apps are used people who own a mobile device or a smartphone, and are often free of cost and easy to download.

She said apps provide the user with information and entertainment, such as games, directions, news, books, weather, music and videos.

"In fact, apps can be so much fun, and so convenient, that you might download them without thinking about how they are paid for, what information they may gather from your device, or who gets that information," said Callina.

• Apps

Mobile apps are software programs that are downloaded to a smartphone or a mobile device, such as a tablet or music player, said Callina. Once the download is complete, the app can be accessed, she said.

• Items needed to use an app

A mobile device is needed to download an app, though not all apps are compatible for all devices. she said. Once a person buys a device, he or she is committed to its operating system and the type of app that is applicable with it.

• App stores

Android, Apple, Microsoft and Blackberry mobile operating systems have online app stores, where apps can be downloaded and installed, she added. These stores have an array of apps from which users can choose.

There are online retailers who offer these stores, and the user must choose a store compatible with his or her device, said Callina.

To set up an account with the store, the user may have to provide credit card information, especially if he or she is purchasing an app.

• How to access the Internet from a smartphone

There are two ways a user can access the Internet from a smartphone, said Callina. The options include a data plan that comes with the user's phone service, or through a Wi-Fi hot spot. Users who have a data plan with their phone, pay a monthly fee to a phone company, such as Verizon or AT&T, she said.

"Wi-Fi connections usually are faster, but you have to be in range of a hot spot to use one," said Callina. "Most public Wi-Fi hot spots — like those in coffee shops, airports and hotels — don't encrypt the information you send over the Internet, and are not secure."

• Free apps

There are some free apps provided through app stores, she said. These apps can collect revenue in a variety of ways. Some free apps make money selling advertisements within it, said Callina. App developers can earn money through the advertisements, so distributing the app to the masses for free makes sense, she explained. Other free apps are offered in basic versions, to lure the user into upgrading the app –– at a cost, she said.

Callina said other types of free apps allow the user to purchase more features for it. "Usually, you are billed for these in-app purchases through the app store," she said. "Many devices have settings that allow you to block in-app purchases."

Some free apps, she said, are offered to interest the user in a company's products, as a form of advertising.

• Data accessed apps

People who sign up with an app store or download an app may be asked for permission to access information from the mobile device, said Callina.

Some apps are able to access phone and e-mail contacts, call logs, Internet data, calendar data, data about the device's location, the device's identification and information about how one uses the app, she said. "Some apps access only the data they need to function, but others access data that's not related to the purpose of the app," she added.

Callina said if a user is entering information on the app, someone may be collecting it. This includes the app developer, the app store, an advertiser or an advertising network. If these individuals or entities are collecting your information, they will most likely share it with other companies, she said.

• How to determine the information an app will share

It is not simple for a user to determine the type of information the app will access or use, she said. Before an app is downloaded, one should consider what is known about the creator and the app's functions.

App stores may provide information of the company that developed the app, she said. "If the developer doesn't provide contact information — like a web site or an e-mail address — the app may be less trustworthy," she explained.

If users have an Android operating system, they should click the "permissions" link just before they install the app, she said. This will provide a person with the information the app will access from the device. Users should consider whether the link is necessary for the type of app they are downloading. "There's no reason for an e-book, or wallpaper app to read your text messages," she advised.

• Reasons apps collect location data

There are apps that use location data to provide users with maps, coupons for nearstores or information about people the user may know, she said. Some apps give data to advertising networks, which may combine it with other information in their database to create advertisements geared toward a user's interests and locations, she said.

"If you don't want to share your location with advertising networks, you can turn off ‘location services' in your phone's settings," said Callina.

A smartphone uses general data about its location, so a phone carrier is able to route calls, she said. If the user turns off the location services feature from a phone, it may not completely deter it from broadcasting this data, she added.

• Apps and malware

Some apps are created hackers and can infect smartphones and mobile devices with malware, she said. Signs of malware include smartphones sending text messages the user didn't write, or installation of apps that weren't downloaded, she explained. People who think their phone is infected with malware have several options, said Callina. Users can contact the app company's customer support or the phone carrier. The user can also install a security app to scan and remove apps with malware, she said.

"Security apps for phones are relatively new; there are only a few on the market including some with free versions," said Callina.

• App reviews

Most app stores include user reviews people can read before downloading an app, she said. Users should be weary of the validity of these reviews, because some app companies have posed as customers and posted comments, she explained.

For more information about apps, visit the OnGuard Online web site, at www.onguardonline.gov.