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Cheap $39 Smartphone Sold By a U.S. Subsidized Lifeline Provider is a Malware Nightmare

The Unimax U683CL

An inexpensive $39 Chinese-made smartphone offered by a U.S. government-subsidized Lifeline mobile phone service provider is wide open to malware and trojan horse apps, leaving users exposed to privacy violations, adware, and auto-installed backdoor apps that might expose some to fraud.

Malwarebytes Labs, an online security company, issued a serious warning to the public about the Unimax U683CL smartphone’s compromised-from-the-box status, and criticized provider Assurance Wireless for selling the phone and ignoring repeated warnings sent to the company about the phone.

“Assurance Wireless by Virgin Mobile offers the UMX U683CL phone as their most budget conscious option. At only $35 [$39 as of Jan. 13, 2020] under the government-funded program, it’s an attractive offering,” Nathan Collier, a senior malware intelligence analyst at Malwarebytes Labs writes in a company blog. “However, what it comes installed with is appalling.”

Malwarebytes began getting complaints about the phone last fall, and secured one to investigate further. It quickly emerged the phone arrived with questionable software pre-installed:

The first questionable app found on the UMX U683CL poses as an updater named Wireless Update. Yes, it is capable of updating the mobile device. In fact, it’s the only way to update the mobile device’s operating system (OS). Conversely, it is also capable of auto-installing apps without user consent.

Thus, we detect this app as Android/PUP.Riskware.Autoins.Fota.fbcvd, a detection name that should sound familiar to Malwarebytes for Android customers. That’s because the app is actually a variant of Adups, a China-based company caught collecting user data, creating backdoors for mobile devices and, yes, developing auto-installers.

From the moment you log into the mobile device, Wireless Update starts auto-installing apps. To repeat: There is no user consent collected to do so, no buttons to click to accept the installs, it just installs apps on its own. While the apps it installs are initially clean and free of malware, it’s important to note that these apps are added to the device with zero notification or permission required from the user. This opens the potential for malware to unknowingly be installed in a future update to any of the apps added by Wireless Update at any time.

The second piece of unremovable malware is the UMX’s own “Settings” app, crucial to operating the phone. Researchers called this “heavily-obfuscated malware” that is detected as Android/Trojan.Dropper.Agent.UMX. This app quietly downloads and installs apps without the user’s permission, most recently including a variant of HiddenAds, which forces users to endure frequent advertising screens on their phone, even when not web browsing.

The malware activates the moment a user powers on their phone for the first time. Most customers will simply be annoyed if ad-related apps automatically install, but with a security-compromised phone opening the door to more malware in the future, this “lowers the bar on bad behavior by app development companies,” according to Collier.

“Budget should not dictate whether a user can remain safe on his or her mobile device. Shell out thousands for an iPhone, and escape pre-installed maliciousness. But use government-assisted funding to purchase a device and pay the price in malware? That’s not the type of malware-free existence we envision at Malwarebytes,” Collier said.

“We informed Assurance Wireless of our findings and asked them point blank why a U.S.-funded mobile carrier is selling a mobile device infected with pre-installed malware? After giving them adequate time to respond, we unfortunately never heard back,” Collier added.

Sprint Shutting Down Virgin Mobile; Remaining Customers Being Switched to Boost Mobile

Phillip Dampier January 7, 2020 Boost Mobile, Sprint, Virgin Mobile 2 Comments

Sprint’s prepaid mobile division

Sprint will be closing down its prepaid Virgin Mobile service in February and will shift customers to its Boost Mobile brand instead and drop its standalone Mobile Broadband service.

The wireless company has virtually ignored Virgin Mobile at least as long as Sprint has been in negotiations to merge operations with T-Mobile USA. The Virgin Mobile website has also been neglected, with no media releases for almost two years and over two years of unchanged rates. Last October, Sprint dropped its last major retail arrangement with Walmart that allowed Virgin Mobile devices and airtime to be sold in Walmart stores. Best Buy and several grocery chains ended sales of Virgin Mobile devices even earlier. As of late last year, new customers could only sign up for Virgin Mobile through its own website, a sure sign Sprint was prepared to accept customer attrition and was likely to pull support for the prepaid brand.

Sprint inherited Boost Mobile after it acquired Nextel in 2005. Boost Mobile had offered its own prepaid service over Nextel’s push-to-talk network beginning in 2001. After Sprint shuttered Nextel’s network, it operated both Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile on Sprint’s network as competing prepaid wireless services. In the last two years, Sprint apparently decided it only needed to support a single brand, and quietly began shifting its marketing exclusively towards Boost.

This week, Sprint confirmed it was shutting down the Virgin Mobile brand in the U.S. in a prepared statement.

“We regularly examine our plans to ensure that we’re offering the best services in line with our customer needs. Beginning on the week of Feb. 2, we will be moving Virgin Mobile customer accounts to our sister brand Boost Mobile – consolidating the brands under one cohesive, efficient and effective prepaid team. In most circumstances, customers can keep their current phone and will receive a comparable or better Boost Mobile service plan with no extra cost.”

The transition will strand Virgin Mobile Broadband and Broadband2Go customers that use a standalone device for mobile broadband service, often used by RV-traveling customers or those in rural areas. Sprint has decided that Boost Mobile will not serve those customers, so mobile data service provided over standalone hotspot devices will end next month.

An FAQ on Virgin Mobile’s website provides some other insight:

Customers were notified in early January about the decision to discontinue Virgin Mobile USA service plans. At that time, we informed customers of the transfer to Boost Mobile. In most instances, your existing account will be transferred to Boost Mobile with your device, and a comparable or better Boost Mobile service plan at no extra cost to you. You will keep your phone number, and your monthly payment date will remain the same as long as you continue on time payments until the transfer to Boost Mobile is complete.

At this time, paying for your service through your PayPal account will not be supported on your new Boost Mobile account and therefore, Paypal will be removed as a registered payment vehicle 4-5 days prior to the migration date. Customers enrolled on a payment method or AutoPay with PayPal accounts will need to re-establish payment options and re-enroll in Autopay using a major credit/debit card. Boost Mobile also does not accept 45/90 Day Top Up Payment Option for service payments. Customers enrolled in 45/90 Day Top Up Payment option will need to re-establish payment option and re-enroll in a Low Balance Autopay option using a major credit/debit card prior to transition in order to avoid service interruption. If your account is impacted by either of these payment methods, we will notify you with instructions for how to make changes prior to transfer date in order to avoid service interruption. Please note the Texas LIDA credits will no longer be issued following transfer to Boost Mobile.

  • Taxes and fees will now be INCLUDED in your new Boost Mobile plan.
  • 6,800 Boost Mobile locations nationwide for your convenience.
  • 99% nationwide coverage with voice roaming.
  • Boost Perks, a reward program exclusive to Boost Mobile customers.

If you have a Mobile Broadband (MBB) device, this device and service will not transfer to Boost Mobile.

In order to avoid service interruption for your MBB, you will need to switch your service to a new provider. If you choose to consider Boost Mobile, please visit Boostmobile.com or your nearest Boost Mobile store for information and current promotions.

The wind down of Virgin Mobile may also serve as a bit of housekeeping as Sprint prepares to merge with T-Mobile. A condition of that merger is spinning off Sprint’s prepaid services including Boost Mobile service to DISH Network to create another viable national wireless carrier to protect competition. Dropping Virgin Mobile now is likely to provide an easier transition for DISH, which would launch operations with a combination of Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile customers.

Telecom Companies Prepare for Hurricane Irma

Phillip Dampier September 7, 2017 AT&T, Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News, Frontier, Public Policy & Gov't, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, Virgin Mobile, Wireless Broadband Comments Off on Telecom Companies Prepare for Hurricane Irma

AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and T-Mobile are sending technicians to hundreds of cell sites across Florida to top off fuel generators, test back up batteries, and protect facilities from Hurricane Irma’s anticipated storm surge and associated flooding.

“Customers rely on us, especially during major storms,” said Joe York, AT&T Florida president. “That’s why we practice readiness drills and simulations throughout the year. We do all we can to have our networks prepared when severe weather strikes. We’ve worked for the past few days to position equipment and crews to respond to the storm. We’re closely linked with Florida public officials in their storm response efforts. With a storm of this size, we may have some outages. But if service goes down, we’ll do all we can to get it back up as fast as possible.”

With landfall possible along the Florida coast or inland, Verizon pointed out that in Florida, since last hurricane season, it has densified its network with 4G, fortified coverage along evacuation routes, put cell sites equipment on stilts and installed new systems in hospitals, government and emergency facilities, and high-traffic public areas.

“The country is only beginning to wrestle with recovery efforts from Harvey, and already, residents of Florida and the Caribbean are bracing for another potentially devastating storm in Hurricane Irma,” said Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure. “During times like these, the cost of staying connected to friends and loved ones should be the last thing on anyone’s mind, and we want to do what we can to support our customers across impacted areas.”

Hurricane Irma’s impact on Puerto Rico.

AT&T and Verizon Wireless are positioning portable cell tower trailers just outside of areas anticipated to take the brunt of the hurricane. AT&T in particular has a lot to prove as its network now includes FirstNet — a public private wireless broadband network for emergency responders that also depends on AT&T’s wireless networks. States are still in the process of opting in to AT&T’s FirstNet. The company has more than 700 pieces of emergency cellular equipment, including Cell on Wheels, Cell on Light Trucks, portable trailers and generators, and even the possibility of deploying Cells on Wings — airborne cell towers that can restore cell service in areas where roads are inaccessible because of floods.

Wireline companies are also positioning repair crews in the region to bring service back online. Other technicians are checking on emergency generator and battery backup power, particularly for maintaining landline service.

“Our team is working to prepare for extreme weather and will be there for our business and residential customers to quickly and safely restore any affected network services,” reports Frontier Communications, which provides service in former Verizon landline service areas.

The phone company is reminding landline customers that not all phones will operate during a power outage, but that does not mean Frontier’s landline network is down.

“Customers who rely on cordless phones should consider plugging a traditional corded phone directly into the wall. In the event of a commercial power outage, corded phones on the copper network will still operate; cordless ones will not,” the company says. “If commercial power is unavailable, generators and batteries in Frontier’s central offices serve as a backup. Phone lines generally will have enough power in them to use a corded phone. For customers using FiOS phone services, the battery backup will supply voice service for up to eight hours.”

The company also warns customers to watch out for damaged utility lines after the storm is over.

“Stay far away from any downed cables or power lines. Contact Frontier at 800-921-8102 (business) or 800-921-8101 (residential) to report any fallen telephone poles or cables.”

Some companies are offering customers a break on their bills:

  • Verizon: Landline customers will not pay any long distance charges for calls to Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and the Turks and Caicos Islands from Sept. 6-9. Taxes and any government surcharges applicable will still apply. Verizon Wireless customers inside the U.S. will not be charged for texts or calls originating in the U.S. to those same countries and territories for the same period.
  • T-Mobile and MetroPCS customers in affected areas of Puerto Rico:  Will get calls, texts, and unlimited data free from Sept. 6th through Sept. 8th. This free service will be available to customers in the 787 and 939 area codes.
  • Sprint: Effective today through Sept. 9, 2017, Sprint will waive call, text and data overage fees for its Sprint, Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile customers in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. For Sprint, Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile customers in the U.S., the company will also waive all international call and text overage fees to the following: Anguilla, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Turks and Caicos, and British Virgin Islands. For the same period, Sprint will also waive roaming voice and text overage fees for its customers in those locations. Fees will be waived during the time specified.
  • Comcast: Opening more than 137,000 XFINITY Wi-Fi hotspots throughout Florida to anyone who needs them, including non-XFINITY customers, for free. For a map of XFINITY Wi-Fi hotspots, which are located both indoors and outdoors in places such as shopping districts, parks and businesses, visit Xfinity.com/wifi. Once in range of a hotspot, select the “xfinitywifi” network name in the list of available hotspots and then launch a browser. Comcast internet customers can sign in with their usernames and passwords and they will be automatically connected to XFINITY Wi-Fi hotspots in the future. Non-Comcast internet subscribers should visit the “Not an Xfinity Internet Customer” section on the sign-in page to get started. Non-customers will be able to renew their complimentary sessions every 2 hours through Sept. 15, 2017.

AT&T Offers These Customer Tips:

  • Keep your mobile phone battery charged. In case of a power outage, have another way to charge your phone like an extra battery, car charger or device-charging accessory. Applicable sales tax holidays are a great time to stock up on cell phone accessories.
  • Keep your mobile devices dry. The biggest threat to your device during a hurricane is water.  Keep it safe from the elements by storing it in a baggie or some other type of protective covering, like an Otterbox phone cover.
  • Have a family communications plan. Choose someone out of the area as a central contact.   Make sure all family members know who to contact if they get separated. Most importantly, practice your emergency plan in advance.
  • Program all of your emergency contact numbers and e-mail addresses into your mobile phone. Numbers should include the police department, fire station and hospital, as well as your family members.
  • Forward your home number to your mobile number in the event of an evacuation. Call forwarding is based out of the telephone central office. This means you will get calls from your landline phone even if your local telephone service is disrupted. If the central office is not operational, services such as voicemail and call forwarding may be useful.
  • Track the storm and access weather information on your mobile device. Many homes lose power during severe weather. You can stay up to speed as a DIRECTV customer, by streaming local weather channels using the DIRECTV application on your smartphone. If you subscribe to mobile DVR, you can also stream every channel directly to your phone.
  • Camera phones provide assistance. If you have a camera phone, take, store and send photos and video clips of damage to your insurance company.
  • Use location-based technology.  Services like AT&T Navigator and AT&T FamilyMap can help you find evacuation routes or avoid traffic from downed trees or power lines. They can also track a family member’s wireless device if you get separated.
  • Limit social media activity. Keep social media activity to a minimum during and after a storm to limit network congestion and allow for emergency communications to go through.

Business Tips:

  • Set up a call-forwarding service to a backup location. Set up a single or multiple hotline number(s) for employees, their families, customers and partners so they all know about the business situation and emergency plan.
  • Back up data to the Cloud. Routinely back up files to an off-site location.
  • Outline detailed plans for evacuation and shelter-in-place. Practice these plans (employee training, etc.). Establish a backup location for your business and meeting place for all employees.
  • Assemble a crisis-management team. Coordinate efforts with neighboring businesses and building management. Disasters that affect your suppliers also affect your business. Outline a plan for supply chain continuity for business needs.

Keeping the lines open for emergencies:

During evacuations, the storm event and its aftermath, network resources will likely be taxed. To help ensure that emergency personnel have open lines, keep these tips in mind:

  • Text messaging. During an emergency situation, text messages may go through more quickly than voice calls because they require fewer network resources. Depending on your text or data plan, additional charges may apply.
  • Be prepared for high call volume. During an emergency, many people are trying to use their phones at the same time. The increased calling volume may create network congestion, leading to “fast busy” signals on your wireless phone or a slow dial tone on your landline phone. If this happens, hang up, wait several seconds and then try the call again. This allows your original call data to clear the network before you try again.
  • Keep non-emergency calls to a minimum, and limit your calls to the most important ones. If there is severe weather, chances are many people will be attempting to place calls to loved ones, friends and business associates.

Additional information and tips for disaster preparedness can be found at www.att.com/vitalconnections.

Sprint Applying Speed Breaks to Top 5% of Wireless Data Users Accessing Congested Cell Sites

throttleEffective June 1st, all Sprint contract and prepaid customers, as well as those using Virgin Mobile USA and Boost will find their wireless data speeds throttled if Sprint finds they are among the top 5% of users on a congested cell site.

Text messages are being sent to all customers about Sprint’s new “fairness algorithm” that it will use as part of its data “prioritization management.”

“Beginning 6/1/14, to provide more customers with a high quality data experience during heavy usage times, Sprint/Virgin Mobile USA/Boost may manage prioritization of access to network resources in congested areas for customers within the top 5 percent of data users.”

Such text messages are unlikely to be understood by average customers who have no idea how much data they use, don’t understand what “prioritization of access” means, or what would make them a “top 5 percent” data user. What many do understand is that they were sold “unlimited use” plans that will be much harder to use if they are identified as a 5%‘r.

Fierce Wireless found answers to several unanswered questions:

  • Boost and Virgin customers exceeding 2.5GB of data use a month used to find their data speeds cut to 256kbps until the beginning of their next billing cycle. In March, Sprint announced it was further cutting speeds in the punishment zone to 128kbps for affected prepaid customers;
  • Sprint’s postpaid/prepaid customers are likely to find themselves throttled once they exceed 5GB of usage per month.

speedbumpSprint says the throttle will only be activated on “congested cell sites” and will impact WiMAX, 3G and LTE 4G networks owned by the company. Anyone who has used Sprint’s 3G network will discover most urban and suburban Sprint cell towers are frequently congested, judging by the low speeds many customers endure. Rural customers or those served on the edge of a suburban area may never find themselves throttled and Sprint promises once traffic clears, the throttle is shut off.

At the same time, once Sprint labels you a “heavy user,” they can leave you in the penalty box for up to 60 days because the network prioritization will also apply during the following month of service.

“Customers that continue to fall within the top 5 percent of data users will continue to be subject to prioritization,” Sprint said.

The approach “will enable us to provide more customers with a high quality data experience during heavy usage times,” Sprint said in a statement sent to FierceWirelessTech.

Other wireless carriers also have employed speed throttling to control their grandfathered “unlimited data” customers, Fierce Wireless notes:

During September 2011, Verizon Wireless implemented what it  termed a “network optimization” plan to limit the bandwidth for the operator’s top 5 percent of 3G smartphone users who are on a grandfathered unlimited data plan. (Ed. Note: However, because of FCC requirements, Verizon cannot throttle its 4G LTE customers.)

One month later, AT&T Mobility  instituted a similar plan, targeting the top 5 percent of users on unlimited plans in specific high-traffic locations. However, AT&T was forced to alter its approach in early 2012 after an outcry from users who were unprepared to have their speeds reduced, particularly in cases where some of them had only consumed 2 GB of data. AT&T’s revised policy slowed speeds of unlimited data users who exceeded specific data thresholds.

T-Mobile US also uses a form of prioritization, noting “certain T-Mobile plans may be prioritized” over service plans under its GoSmart Mobile prepaid brand.

Sprint Signals New Focus on Profitability; Cutting Back Upgrade Promotions, Discounts

Phillip Dampier April 24, 2013 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, Sprint, Virgin Mobile, Wireless Broadband Comments Off on Sprint Signals New Focus on Profitability; Cutting Back Upgrade Promotions, Discounts

SprintSprint will focus its postpaid wireless business on profitability in 2013, with reductions in customer discounts and a tighter upgrade policy that will raise prices for some and slow down others seeking new subsidized smartphones.

CEO Dan Hesse today told Wall Street investors Sprint will be leveraging its upgraded LTE network to help hold the line on discounts and early upgrades, reminding customers Sprint’s Network Vision plan is delivering better service with faster speeds and fewer dropped or blocked calls.

Sprint released its 1st quarter 2013 earnings this morning, showing the company reduced its quarterly losses from $863 million in the same quarter last year to $643 million. The company spent $1.4 billion during the first quarter on network upgrades, primarily on forthcoming 4G LTE network roll-outs.

Steve Elfman, Sprint’s president of network operations reported the company activated more than 12,000 LTE-upgraded cell towers by the end of the quarter, slowed only by inclement weather. This year will see a massive increase in those numbers.

“We now have zoning complete on over 32,000 sites and leasing complete on over 31,000 sites. More than 25,000 sites already or have already begun construction,” Elfman reported. “Our weekly construction starts are now at a level to achieve our goals for the year. There are over 600 cities under construction and we have now launched 4G LTE in 88 cities with over 170 expected to launch in the months to come.”

Hesse

Hesse

While Elfman oversees LTE upgrades, Sprint is also busy working towards decommissioning its Nextel network on June 30. Despite repeated warnings Nextel’s demise was close at hand, at least 1.4 million Nextel customers, nearly all business accounts, are still active on that network. Sprint is focusing most of its promotional budget again this quarter on convincing those customers to convert to Sprint service. But only 46 percent of Nextel customers took Sprint up on their repeated offers during the first quarter. Many others left for Verizon Wireless, switching off not only their Nextel commercial phones, but also those on Sprint’s network as well.

Sprint expects to hold on to a declining number of its Nextel customers as the second quarter progresses, until the network is switched off for good at the end of June.

That hurts, because Sprint has also been losing customers due to “pardon our dust” construction-related service interruptions as part of LTE 4G upgrades. Those disruptions are expected to accelerate  as more cities are prepared for LTE service.

Sprint’s Lifeline cell phone service for the poor, Assurance, also took major hits during the quarter after the FCC tightened eligibility requirements for the free/low-cost cell phone service. The company switched off 224,000 accounts in the last three months that either failed to re-certify eligibility or were never qualified in the first place. Sprint’s wholesale customers, which resell access on the Sprint network, are also busy deactivating unqualified Lifeline wireless lines, so Sprint expects a similar number of disconnects during the second quarter as those accounts are dropped from the network.

As Sprint turns its attention to profitability, revenue numbers at Sprint improved slightly. Sprint’s prepaid division added 568,000 net prepaid customers, and Virgin Mobile raised its minimum top up amount for 90 days of service to $20 (up from $15 with a credit card). As customers upgrade their Sprint postpaid phones, more customers are also encountering Sprint’s $10 “premium data” surcharge.

Customers will also discover a tightening of Sprint’s discounts and upgrade promotions. Among the efforts underway:

  • curtailing or eliminating certain customer credits and discounts;
  • tightening device upgrade policies to end early upgrades, although Sprint still retains its 20 month upgrade policy for now;
  • holding the line on phone subsidies for increasingly expensive smartphones.
Sprint's prepaid mobile division

Sprint’s prepaid mobile division

Slowing phone upgrades is particularly important for Sprint’s bottom line.

“I think the policy shifting is important in the industry because subsidies just keep going up and I think from the economic model perspective of the carriers we just can’t afford to upgrade as often,” said Sprint CEO Dan Hesse. “We’re not seeing any evidence yet that customers are interested in upgrading less often if they see less difference or improvement year-over-year in terms of what’s going on with these devices. In fact the opposite might be true which means these policies are really quite important for the industry.”

Hesse admitted that the drive to increase profits could cost Sprint some of its postpaid business, and probably already has over the last three years. But Hesse noted many of those contract customers have migrated to the company’s prepaid service, which keeps revenue in-house. Hesse expects as long as popular phones are available on prepaid plans, price-sensitive customers will continue to migrate towards prepaid service.

“I think what you are seeing is maturing of the U.S. markets beginning,” Hesse noted. “The U.S. has always been or traditionally been almost exclusively postpaid and it’s beginning to look like other markets that have a higher prepaid mix in terms of the number or percentage of customers.”

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