FTC cracks down on Jacksonville maker of 'stalking' apps

Domestic violence advocates warn of technology's potential for abuse

VIDEO: The Federal Trade Commission is bringing a case against the developer of a stalking app.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – For the first time, the Federal Trade Commission has brought a case against Retina-X, a Jacksonville-based company and the developer of a so-called “stalking” app.

The FTC complaint states that Retina-X developed and sold MobileSpy, PhoneSheriff and TeenShield, three apps that shared detailed information about a smartphone user’s activities – from text and call history to GPS locations to browsing habits – without the user’s knowledge.

But according to the complaint, Retina-X did not take steps to make sure the apps’ purchasers were using the technology for legitimate purposes. In fact, to install the apps, those who bought them often had to jailbreak, or downgrade security measures, on their smartphones.

In addition, once a purchaser installed the app on a phone, they could remove the app’s icon from view, so the smartphone users would not have known their activity was being monitored by someone else.

Cyber safety consultant Chris Hamer suggested it could happen with someone asking to borrow your phone to make a call. “I go to a website or text message a return service that sends me a link. I install the app. Two minutes. Now I’m tracking your device and you don’t know,” he said.

The News4Jax I-TEAM visited an address listed for Retina-X to speak with the company, but the location turned out to be a UPS store. An attorney who represents the company, however, sent a statement in response to an email seeking comment on the FTC complaint:

“While the firm’s clients were the unfortunate victims of a skilled hacker, they would like to thank the FTC for its professionalism during the course of the investigation,” said attorney Richard B. Newman of Hinch Newman LLP.

But the existence of these apps and their potential for exploitation is raising concerns that they could do more harm than good. As chief executive officer of Hubbard House, a domestic violence shelter, Gail Patin knows the technology could put the right information in the wrong hands.

“Here you might think, ‘I left, I’m hiding,’ and then you look outside the window and there’s the car of the abuser sitting right out there because they were tracked,” Patin said.

That’s why a focus of Hubbard House is to help those who believe their personal devices or shared family devices are being secretly monitored. Patin recommends using a phone or computer that you know is not being actively monitored by an abuser, such as a friend’s phone or a library computer.

“Often times if they’re being stalked, everything is being watched on the phone too,” she said. “So you certainly don’t want an abuser to see you called Hubbard House, you don’t want the abuser to see that you looked up how to get out of a relationship. How do I get help from an abusive person?”

If you think someone might have installed one of these apps on your smartphone, the FTC recommends taking these steps:

  • Check if your smartphone has been compromised, rooted or jailbroken. This allows full control over your phone by weakening its security protections. “Root checker” apps identify if your smartphone has been rooted or jailbroken.
  • Get help. Law enforcement and domestic violence advocates can help you identify tech misuse and create a safety plan. Law enforcement can determine if spyware is on your phone. Domestic violence advocates can advise you on preserving evidence of abuse before you make changes to your phone. If possible, contact them from a different device.
  • Get a new phone or reset your phone. It might be safest to get a new smartphone with an account that the abuser doesn’t have access to. If you keep your smartphone, consider removing the stalking app by factory resetting your smartphone and reinstalling the manufacturer’s operating system. Do not re-install programs or content from the old phone or your cloud, as this could re-install the spyware.

If you are in an abusive relationship and need help, contact Hubbard House. The organization has a 24/7 confidential hotline available. Just dial 904-354-3114 or via TTY at 904-354-3958.